The U.S. Coins "Red Book" (A Guide Book of United States Coins, 417 pages, K. Bressett, Editor; Whitman Publishing; $14.95 Spiral Bound Softback) has been the standard value guide for coin collectors and dealers for six decades. It lists the prices for every known U.S. Coin, including Colonial coins, error coins, mint and proof sets, commemoratives, and gold coins. Since you can find out what your coin is worth online for free, does it make sense to buy the Red Book?
The Red Book - The Essential U.S. Coins Value and Reference Guide
The answer is a resounding YES! The Red Book is much more than just a guide to tell you how much a coin is worth! Besides the price listings for every known U.S. coin, the Red Book serves as an outstanding overall reference guide. It has thousands of full-color images of coins, with detail photos that show you the difference between, say, a 1982 Large Date and 1982 Small Date Lincoln Cent. For a beginning collector, this book is even more important, because it has new-collector essentials such as a guide to grading your coins, a glossary of coin terminology, an introduction to each coin type, and an essay on the history of U.S. coinage. The intermediate collector will enjoy the sections on famous sunken treasures of U.S. Coins, noted U.S. coin collectors, famous U.S. coin hoards, and rare coin investing. The best thing of all about the Red Book is that it costs less than $15 in paperback, and you can often find it for half that!
The Main Purpose of the Red Book - What is Your Coin Worth?
Despite the generous additional content, the main substance of the Red Book are the U.S. coin values. The Red Book has sections for each coin type, arranged in roughly chronological order by issue. The first section of values pertains to Colonial and pre-American circulating coin types. Next is the main section, entitled "United States Regular Issues", which is arranged by coin denomination, starting with the Half Cents. The individual year issues are listed chronologically by date, earliest first, with a separate line entry for each major type (e.g. mint mark, large or small date or other variety, etc.) As many as nine prices are given in columnar format, for grades ranging from About Good (AG-3) to Choice Proof (PF-65) according to the ANS Grading System. Each coin type has values listed for whatever grades are appropriate for the market for that mint issue. Another column lists the official mintage for that issue. It is important to remember that the values given in the Red Book are dealer retail values, not what your coin is actually worth if you tried to sell it to a dealer. Read What is the Difference Between Coin Values and Coin Prices?
Finding Your Coin in the Red Book
Although the organization of the Red Book is mostly logical, my biggest complaint about the book is that it lacks a table of contents. There is an index in the back, written in tightly-spaced, small type, but there is clearly an assumption on the part of the editors that people who use the book will just know where to go. And it's likely that most do; after all, the overwhelming majority of the coins most collectors and dealers encounter day after day are the more common Regular Issues. The beginner needs to keep in mind that every common coin is there, in face-value order from Half Cents to Dollars. If all you collect right now is Lincoln Cents, put a tab on the first page of the Lincoln Cents section so you can open the book to that page easily. My book has several tabs, for Large Cents, Indian Head Cents, Jefferson Nickels, Seated Liberty Quarters, and Morgan Dollars. I also still use my 1974 copy of the Red Book, my first as a teen-aged collector, as a check-list for my collection. I check off each coin as I get it, and gain much satisfaction as my check marks make their way across the columns of grades, from my first About Good and Fine specimens to the prized About Uncirculated (or better!) grades as I trade upward.
Why Can't I Just Look it up Online?
Most collectors agree the Red Book is an important reference for the U.S. coin collector, but is the book really necessary if all you need is coin values? Why not just look my coins up online? Because one of the best things about the paperback version of the Red Book is that it's inexpensive and portable. I take it to coin shows with me to check prices before I buy. It serves as my checklist while fishing through pick bins or scanning eBay. I can avoid buying a duplicate because I always know what coins I have, and in what grades, thanks to my pencil-checks in my copy of the Red Book. Although the Internet has more up-to-date pricing than the book, this type of information is only useful for high-grade and rare coins. The vast majority of buying and selling is done in collector grade material, which doesn't change much in value in the short term. Internet price listings are a great source of extra information, but until somebody invents a $15 real-time-pricing coins-based handheld computer, online price lists will not be replacing my Red Book!
The Bottom Line - Buy it!
The Red Book is an indispensable resource for all U.S. coin collectors.