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Although you may not be able to judge a book by its cover, a rare book can fetch top dollar.

Several years ago, a Boston student hit the jackpot after finding a first edition of Puritan philosopher Jonathan Edwards' sermons. On your next trip to a used book store, you could come upon a rare find if you know what to spot.The value of a book is determined by historical factors, such as suppression of the work (being banned in Boston does wonders for sales and value), or by physical characteristics, such as binding quality, printing process, design, the number of copies printed, or an autograph or inscription.

John Bennett Shaw, a leading collector of Sherlock Holmes material, said the value of a book can be enhanced by its inclusion in a special collection. Shaw recently donated a collection of G.K. Chesterton's writings to the University of Notre Dame.

Literary worth is not as important as rarity when it comes to assigning a price tag. One small pamphlet in the Shaw collection with a single poem by Chesterton is worth $850.

Like all collectibles, a book only becomes rare when demand is greater than supply. This means the value of a rare book can be highly subjective. A book neglected when it was first published may gain importance many years later. Laura Linard, manager of special collections for the Chicago Public Library, said the final price of a book often depends on the individual rare book dealer.

Rare books in the greatest demand are the first editions of major works, such as early outlines of inventions or new discoveries, important literary works, and books with illustrations by a famous artist.

While rare books turn up everywhere from attics to old trunks to book stores, books found in unlikely places are often in bad condition. Defects like torn or missing pages can reduce or eliminate a rare book's dollar worth.

Of course, books in good condition are more valuable. It's a good idea to keep your books in a cool, dry place. Sunlight can cause great damage.

Contrary to poular opinion, a book isn't rare just because it's old. However, books from certain periods stand a better chance of being in demand. Three important categories in time are books printed before 1501, English books printed before 1641, and books printed in the U.S. prior to 1801.

Even if only a few copies of a book are known to exist, demand must be high for the book to be called valuable. While its impossible to get an exact fix on how many copies of a book are still in existence, the National Union Catalog; Pre-1956 Imprints, available at most public libraries, will let you know how many copies of a book are in North American libraries.

With certain exceptions, books usually not considered rare include: bibles (no other book has been printed more often); encyclopedias (which are purchased for up-to-date information); textbooks (although there is some demand for textbooks published before 1860); and newspapers.

First editions are often considered valuable, but most books only have one printing. Once again, a great deal depends on the importance of the individual work and the demand. The designation of "first edition" usually is more important to collectors of literary works.

An author's signature can add value to a rare book. However, many 20th century writers traveled in publicity junkets and so their signatures are more common. Even if a signature is common, it's almost certain to increase a book's value.

Don't forget family documents, letters and scrapbooks. While these items may only have personal value, sometimes a diary by an unknown writer can spark the interest of historians. Also, letters signed by historical figures are always in demand.

For more information on the value of personal papers, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to the Society of American Archivists, 600 S. Federal, Suite 504, Chicago, Illinois 60605. Ask for the phamplet, "A Donors' Guide to the Preservation of Personal and Family Papers and the Records of Organizations."

Some people donate important papers and books to libraries and universities, and the "fair market value" of these items can be claimed as a tax deduction. For information on charitable donations, contact the IRS and request their free publication "Valuation of Donated Property" (No. 561).

Professional book appraisers and most booksellers can tell you what your books are worth. The cost usually depends on the amount of time needed to do the job. To find a qualified appraiser, consult the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, 50 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, New York 10020. Ask for their annual directory, which lists addresses, phone numbers and specialties of its members. Send a large self-addressed stamped envelope with at least 65 cents postage.

Another helpful source of information for novice collectors is "Your Old Books" by Peter Van Wingen. Send $1 to The Association of College and Research Libraries, American Library Association, 50 E. Huron St., Chicago, Illinois 60611.

Reader questions will be answered and may appear in this column, when mailed to Gary S. Meyers at 20 West Hubbard St., Chicago, IL 60610.