or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk


Reference Question of the Week – 4/24/11

   April 30th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Silver Mercury DimeOne slow afternoon, and elderly woman called and asked,

Can you tell me how many silver dimes it takes to make an ounce of silver?

I said sure, and started an internet search. Initially I searched for "silver dimes in an ounce site:.gov" hoping that a Government site would have the most authoratative information on the different metal composition of different coins, and provide a nice chart to equate silver coins to pure silver ounce. But after skimming the first couple pages of results, I was getting nowhere fast.

I dropped the "site:.gov," which produced a ton of results - by comparing various answers, which were all roughly the same, I felt confident to give her the answer that it takes 14 dimes make an ounce of silver.

To this she said,

Thank you, that's wonderful. If it's not too much trouble, could you also tell me how many silver quarters make an ounce? You see, my husband always kept a jar of silver coins, and he told me never to touch them. He said the silver in them was worth more than the coins, so to never spend them. I heard that the price of silver is getting high now, and with my husband gone, I wanted to know if it was time to cash them in.

I ran the same search for quarters (6 quarters) and also for nickels (18 nickels - I did not know that nickels minted during WWII were made of silver).

While I was looking for these, the woman kept talking about her husband, and why he collected coins.

He always said that you can't lose with coins, because you have options. He said the value of the silver in them will always be the highest. But, there's also the value to coin collectors if you have something rare. And, if all else fails, at least you can still spend them as dimes and quarters. You can buy a block of silver, but you can't spend it at a store - at least you'll always be able to spend coins in a pinch.

This whole call had an air of sorrow to it, because I got the feeling that her husband had died awhile ago, and she had hung on to these coins with that memory of him. But with her investigating the value of the silver, it felt as if she was ready to cash out because she needed the money - and the thought of an elderly woman taking a mason jar full of her late husband's coin collection to a cash-for-gold place just made me sad.

But this cheered me up: she asked me to look up the current price of silver (about $48/ounce), then did some quick math and said,

Well, that's either $1.40 in dimes or $1.50 in quarters - I've got a lot more dimes anyway, so I'm going to turn in enough to buy myself something nice. This'll be the best $1.40 I ever spent.

Ha - that brightened my entire day.

After I hung up with her, I kept searching to see what else I could find. Coinflation.com offers some good tools - a handy listing of the face value and silver value of circulated coins (which also links to individual pages about each type of coin), and a silver coin calculator in which you enter the number of different types of coins and it tells you how much they are worth.

Some people might remember that one of my hobbies is metal detecting (fitting for a reference librarian, right?) - it turns out that the four Mercury dimes I've found are worth $13.87 in silver. Neat (but I'm keeping them).



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Reference Question of the Week – 10/10/10

   October 16th, 2010 Brian Herzog

This question was interesting, and in honor of the nature of this question, the alternate title for this post is "Reference Question of the Week - X/X/X."

One of my brothers came across some old Roman coins, and asked me if I could help identify them. The cleanest one he had looked like this (front and back):

Roman Coin

He had found out about a book called Eric: The Encyclopedia of Roman Imperial Coins which should be a fairly comprehensive list, and wanted to know if my library had a copy. We don't, and according to WorldCat, it's not widely available at all. It is published by Dirty Old Books (which is the best possible name for a coin book publisher), and I found the full-text available as a PDF download [ZIP, 65MB!] from their website.

After it downloaded and I started flipping through it looking at the pictures, I was overwhelmed to see how many different Roman coins there were - but I guess that's what you get when you rule the earth for centuries.

So, I decided to try a different tactic. I went to Google Image search, and started searching on phrases that described the back of the coin - "roman coin two people tower," ancient coin two soldiers," etc. I started switching between both Images search and Web search, thinking the text descriptions in the Web search might give me more keywords, and that's exactly what happened with "coin soldiers standing tower."

On that search, the third return was titled Constantine, Roman Imperial Coins reference at WildWinds.com and had in the description "...two soldiers standing front, holding spears, heads turned inward at two standards between them..." which sounded promising. On that page I did a Ctrl+f for "two soldiers," and seemed to definitely be getting close. I also noticed that the words "GLORIA EXERCITVS" were printed on a lot of the coins. The writing on my brother's coin was too faint to read, but now that I knew what to look for, I could pick out the letters.

So I tried an image search for "GLORIA EXERCITVS" and hit the mother load.

Clicking on a few of those lead to http://www.romancoin.info which had a lot of information. I couldn't find the exact face on the front of the coin, but by scrolling down a bit, I found the exact coin back under the "Reverses" section of "Part 1 – The Era of Constantine the Great, his Sons and Rivals (320 – 337 A.D.)." So that seems to limit the coin's era and it also linked to a spreadsheet [XLS, 412KB] of all the coins that use that have that design on the reverse.

It didn't make much sense to me, but I sent all of this to my brother hoping that between the websites, spreadsheet, ERIC pdf and him using a magnifying glass to get more detail from the coin, he'd be able to identify it exactly.

But then again, narrowing it down to the reign of Constantine the Great might be enough. Unfortunately, it seems like these coins are fairly common and not very valuable. Still, pretty neat - I love my job.



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