Skip to main content

Skip navigation

Rare Books and Special Collections At Northern Illinois University: FAQ

A brief guide to Rare Books and Special Collections at Northern Illinois University

Frequently Asked Questions

These are questions that are frequently asked by patrons of Rare Books and Special Collections at NIU libraries. If you do not see the answer to your particular question here, please ask!

Q. I have an old book. Can you tell me what it's worth?

A. Unfortunately, by law, libraries, librarians, and curators are not allowed to appraise materials. However, antiquarian booksellers do it for a living. The easiest way to find an antiquarian bookseller is to visit the website of their main professional organization, the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA). Regionally, you can find booksellers who deal in used and rare books through the Midwest Antiquarian Booksellers Association. You can also look in your local Yellow Pages under "booksellers." If you would like to try to search for yourself to determine a likely value, you can use sites like to get a ballpark price for your item if it is currently on the market.

Q. Do you want to buy my old books from me?

A. It depends. Generally speaking, we work through professional book dealers who have relationships with our Acquisitions Department when we make purchases. We are always happy to accept donations from single volumes to large groups of books. 

Q. What makes a book rare?

A. It depends. Sometime it is the age of the book. Sometimes it is how scarce it is, its method of production, historical significance, or the celebrity of its previous owner. You can also learn more about rare books through a pamphlet put out by the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the American Library Association, called Your Old Books. First editions are not always rare, and rare books are not always first editions.

Q. How do I donate books to the collection?

A. We are always interested in adding relevant materials in good condition to our collections. Please contact Sarah Cain, Curator, to discuss items that you would like us to consider as gifts. She can be reached at (815) 753-0255 or If you need documentation for tax purposes, please notify the Curator during the initial contact as our records policy has changed as of September 1, 2017.

Books that are not old or particularly rare can be donated to the library through the Gifts Coordinator, Ken Kamm. Another way to donate books to the Library is through our Friends of the Library Book Sale. In each of these cases, your donation is tax-deductible.

Q. How can I provide financial support?

A. There are many ways to support to the NIU Libraries. The Friends of the NIU Libraries provide a simple way to support library collections and services. There is also the opportunity to purchase a book for the library through the Library Book Fund. Your generosity can be memorialized on our "Ensuring the Future" tree in our main lobby. If you are interested in providing support through collection endowments, facility-naming opportunities, technological support, or endowments for library positions, please contact Library Administration, at (815) 753-1094 or

Q. Where are you located?

A. We are located on the fourth floor of Founders' Memorial Library on the NIU campus, in rooms 402-403.

Q. When are you open?

A. We are normally open from 8AM-noon; 1-4:30PM, Monday through Friday, nearly year round. We typically close at the end of December for the holidays. 

You may also make an appointment to use RBSC materials with the Curator outside of our normal hours. These appointments are made available to researchers as well as to class and community visits. To make an appointment with the Curator, please call (815) 753-0255 or email

Q. Can groups visit for a tour?

A. Absolutely! We are happy to talk to groups and classes of all ages and educational levels. We do ask that you call ahead to make an appointment for groups, however, so that we can gather items of interest to you. Teachers of any and all age groups are encouraged to contact the Curator about opportunities for encouraging your students to use RBSC. We will gladly tailor our tour, class visit, or discussion to your research or teaching interests.

Q. What do you have?

A. In addition to about 10,000 rare books, predominantly in history, art, literature, religion and philosophy, we also have 42 Special Collections. The largest portion of our collection is devoted to popular literature. We have one of the largest collections of dime novels in the country (50,000 at last count through the Johannsen and LeBlanc Collections), and the most comprehensive collection of Horatio Alger, Jr. materials in the country. We collect SF/F literature book, archives and, magazines. We collect comic books, too. We are also particularly strong in British and American poetry (Blake, Burns, Byron, Wordsworth, and Whitman) as well as prose (Graham Greene; Alan Denson; James Hanley; Jeremy Taylor) and drama (Historic Scenic Collection/Chicago Lyric OperaNisbet-Snyder, and University Drama Collections). We have collections in African Americana (including the Willard Motley papers); Gender Studies; Fine Arts, including a particular focus on Japanese printmaking; Southeast Asian materials; Radical Pamphlets; Maps; and the Art and History of the Book. If you are looking for a specific title, please search our Online Catalog. However, some of our collections are not fully cataloged, so by all means, please ask us if you do not find what you are looking for.

Q. Do I need any special qualifications to use Rare Books and Special Collections?

A. NO. Rare Books and Special Collections is open to anyone who wishes to use the materials. This includes not only NIU faculty, staff, and students, but members of our community and the general public. We are always happy to provide tours and "show and tell" to school and community groups. An appointment is not necessary to use our collections, but we do recommend that if you have specific in-depth research needs, or wish to bring a group, that you contact the Curator ahead of time, so that we may have your materials ready for you. Please see our Use policies for details.

Q. Can someone in RBSC do my research for me?

A. We are happy to provide reference assistance to all researchers and answer basic reference questions. It is always recommend that researchers personally visit Rare Books and Special Collections; however, we understand this may not be possible for some researchers. Researchers may reach us by mail, telephone, and email, but please understand that we are not able to provide in-depth research services due to staffing constraints. Questions are addressed in the order which they are received, and response time varies.

Q. If I travel to NIU to do research, where can I stay?

A. There is a hotel in the NIU Holmes Student Center, directly across from the Library, that often has rooms available. You can find more information at their website There are other hotels in the area available as well. Please contact us for further details.

Q. Can I make photocopies or scans of Rare Books?

A. Photocopying and scanning is available in RBSC, dependent upon the condition of the item. Copies are $0.15 per page in person; $0.20 per page by mail. The first 5 copies are free. Scans are provided on a case-by-case basis, typically gratis. RBSC and Digitization Lab staff perform all copying and scanning. Please understand that not all materials can be copied or scanned due to the condition or nature of the material. Copying is up to the discretion of RBSC staff. Unfortunately, we do not accept Huskie Bucks. Please see our Photo Duplication policy for details.

Q. What is the oldest book in your collection?

A. The oldest printed book in our collection is a 1480 edition of De Humilitate Interiori. By Joannes Carthusiensis, printed by Nicolas Jenson. We also have a vellum manuscript leaves that were created roughly 300 years earlier and several medieval manuscript leaves that date from 1150 to 1530 CE. The oldest item in our collection is a cuneiform tablet.

Subject Guide

RBSC Location & Hours

Founders Memorial Library, 4th floor (rm 403)

Hours: Monday - Friday

8 a.m. - noon; 1 p.m. - 4:30 p.m.

and by appointment