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

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).

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

9 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 4/24/11”

  1. zognog Says:

    Those war time nickels are only 35% silver, 56% copper, and 9% magnganese. They will have a large P on the back top. (Above the dome of Monticello.) I think it only lasted 4 years. I have found one metal detecting myself.

  2. Emrikol Says:

    I thought it was now illegal to melt down and sell metal from coins?

    Source: http://www.usatoday.com/money/2006-12-14-melting-ban-usat_x.htm

  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    @zognog: I found a 1941 nickel – too bad the war nickels are mid-1942 – 1945.

    @Emrikol: Now that you point that out, I do remember it – although the USA Today article only mentions pennies and nickels (so does the US Mint rule it is talking about), in response to the rising copper prices. I honestly don’t know about silver coins, but searching online did produce some sites that buy them for above-face value (sketchy as all get-out, but this whole industry kind of is).

    Coinflation.com has an FAQ on melting coins, but it’s from 2006 (same year as the USA Today article). It refers to Section 331 of Title 18 of the US Code (Section 332 seems also relevant), but the law doesn’t seem to outlaw melting coins – only changing them and still trying to pass them off as coins.

    There’s a more recent article on About.com, which also doesn’t answer the question, but is interesting nonetheless.

    I am certainly not a lawyer, and I don’t know how US Mint interm rules fit in with the US Code. Next time I see one of those cash-for-gold places, I’m going to ask them what they do with coins they buy.

  4. Emrikol Says:

    Please do keep us posted if you casually get a true answer, as my curiosity sense is tingling.

  5. Terry Says:

    “After I hung up with her, I kept searching to see what else I could find.”

    This is one of those librarian things patrons don’t know about. They should always come back later and ask what else we’ve found. 🙂

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Terry: I know, which is too bad. For the tough questions, I always ask for contact information and I get back to them if I find anything else, but I don’t always remember to ask on the “easy” questions. Too bad we don’t have a fancier called ID.

  7. Erin Apostolos Says:

    Wow, Brian. Time to turn in the silver coins I collected in my college days while working at a self-service gas station. You wouldn’t believe what people gave me for a pack of Camels! I swapped out my quarters and dimes for the silver ones all the time. I guess my years there weren’t a waste after all.


  8. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Erin: Not at all, and I’m glad you still have them – it always amazes me when I find one in the wild, but I do occasionally get them in change.

  9. Erin Says:

    You get some really interesting & cool questions over there!I love the links that you post for how you did your searches!