My grandfather had a PhD in math. When he died, he left a lot of math textbooks, which I took. These include things like Van der Waerden's 2-volume algebra set from the 1970s, "Studies in Global Geometry and Analysis" by Shiing-Shen Chern, a series called "Mathematics: it's content, methods, and meaning," and many more.

I'm keeping about 20 of them, but there are 103 which I don't want to keep, but which I don't know what to do with. I obviously don't want to throw them away, and I don't really know what will happen to them if I donate them to the giant used-books depository in downtown Baltimore (called "the book thing," where people drop off and pick up used books for free). I'd like to donate them to some math collector or math library. But maybe there are just too many used antique math books floating around.

RECAP: I have 103 antique used math books which I cannot keep. Do you have a suggestion for what to do with them?

Thanks, David

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    I've converted this to wiki, but with some reservations. I've bumped the discussion on meta.MO about when questions should be wiki. If you have an opinion, please contribute at… – Anton Geraschenko Dec 26 '09 at 19:43
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    As in comments below, university math libraries have space problems. Getting out-of-copyright books scanned would be excellent, as would be donating to AIM (Amer. Inst. Math.), whose library only came into existence a few years ago, and, therefore, tends to lack "classics". – paul garrett Jul 29 '12 at 20:06

11 Answers 11

up vote 11 down vote accepted

David, Older mathematics books can be surprisingly rare.
An option is to sell them on Advanced Book Exchange ( I would be happy to help you triage your books. I did this once for the daughter of a philosopher who had a large mathematics book collection. It did not take long on the telephone. Dan

  • Ok, that would be great. I'm contacting you by email with my phone number. – David Spivak Dec 26 '09 at 15:39
  • These should go like hotcakes. Of course from the title I was expecting Legendre's number theory. In 1970 Van der Waerden was probably already in its 5th edition. I agree ABE (or Powell's) is a good place for them. Individuals probably want these books more than libraries nowadays. And the commercial used book market has become be exploitive at times, via jacking up prices on old works. The modest but nice little expository book on global geometry edited by Chern is currently offered used on ABE at from $6 to $73. – roy smith Feb 17 '11 at 20:03
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    I guess a dollar sign no longer stands for a dollar. – roy smith Feb 17 '11 at 20:04

If any of them are out of copyright, the internet archive ( might want to scan them to put them online. There are lots of other scanned math books on the site right now. I really love this one even though I can't read any of it:

The book is handwritten text (in German) of lectures about Riemann surfaces by Felix Klein and it's just wonderful to flip through it on the screen.

I think the American Institute of Mathematics is happy to receive donations for its library.

  • Donating them to a library is a great idea. Here at NMSU, we have a wonderful math reading room that has a surprisingly rich collection of math books. It's a great addition to the university library's collection. I assume it's mostly been amassed through donations. – Dan Ramras Feb 17 '11 at 18:49

If the books are mostly research-level math books, then definitely donating the books to a university math library is much better than donating or selling the books to a random bookstore.

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    I could be wrong, but I imagine that university libraries would have a glut of this kind of thing. But it couldn't hurt to ask.. – David Spivak Dec 26 '09 at 15:21
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    Most libraries I know are always looking for space, and the books would probably end up being sold at some point, which strikes me as sub-optimal in terms of giving them the best possible home. Vladimir Arnold famously griped about Jussieu's libraries in Paris wanting to dump classic calculus textbooks (quoted in ) so nothing is safe! – Thierry Zell Feb 17 '11 at 11:30

I would suggest scanning them all and donate them to "the" "internet" book library (for example, a; many people would be grateful and the legacy of your father shall be preserved. And one hopes that the laws shall eventually change so that it becomes legal (and maybe is already legal in some countries)..

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    Luckily the no-cloning theorem doesn't apply... – David Roberts Nov 20 '12 at 6:49

You're still in Eugene, right David? I'd take your books (or the list of books) up to Powell's bookstore in Portland to see what they think. They'd probably be happy to buy many of your books as long as they're not too common. They have a pretty serious technical books collection and as far as I can tell they make a lot of money selling rare math books on-line.

Another option would be to have an auction in Eugene, say, in the math department lounge. The Cornell math library used to auction off their old duplicate books that were no longer in frequent circulation. I got some really nice books for cheap at those auctions.

Though I haven't dealt directly with them, I'm aware of another established company (in Ohio) which buys and sells advanced or rare books in mathematics:

Except for purely local transactions, shipping cost is always a major concern in dealing with individual books or small collections (more so outside the US). But the market for advanced mathematics is limited everywhere, so be selective. It's true that most public or college libraries have too little shelf space and staff to deal with questionable freebies. I've often given away surplus books at all levels to colleagues and students, but there is no way to guarantee that these are really used. Some I've given away have on the other hand wound up being sold, as I later learned.

People stop by faculty offices here regularly and offer cash for current sellable editions of elementary textbooks; they pay well but are definitely picky. Even that market is changing rapidly due to e-books and the like.

I recently sold some books to these guys: They came to my office, looked around and were very professional.

If you are fine with selling some of them to private collectors, I'd be interested in seeing a list of what you've got.

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    Are you in the Baltimore area? – David Spivak Dec 26 '09 at 15:17

If you haven't sold all of these books, i might be interested in purchasing some of them from you. I am a math major in college and planning on getting a PhD in Math. Currently i am building a library of math books. Thanks!

Lately I see maths books sold on ebay. Perhaps that's a relatively hassle-free option, at least you might get reasonable prices for the most interesting ones.

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