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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