Silver, known to chemists as Ag, is a precious metal.  It is precious to investors as well.  To begin silver’s story, lets discuss some physical properties of this magical metal.  It is a relatively soft, lustrous metal.  It has the highest electrical and thermal conductivity of any metal, making it very useful in commercial application and electronics. Silver nitrate was heavily used in film and processing, and as that industry has declines it can commonly be found in solar photovoltaic panels. It of course polishes nicely and is very shiny, which makes it an excellent material for jewelry, art and coin.
Throughout history silver has been traded and horded among various cultures.  It has been used as currency dating back to 700 BC and was a staple of the Roman Empire monetary system. In the United States silver has been in much of the early coins produced until the 1960’s.  Many of our early dimes, quarters, half dollars and silver dollars contained some quantity of silver.  In recent years the silver has been replaced by more base metals like copper and tin.
The price of silver has fluctuated throughout history reaching a price-adjusted peak of $1,300 peak in the 15thcentury.  Most recently it’s hovered in the low $30.00 range. Generally the price of silver is volatile.  It’s not as rare as gold and it is actively being mined in several spots around the world. It is thought that the current world silver reserves are over 600,000 tons. 
What does this mean for the average person? I believe that the average person should consider silver a potential investment vehicle.  Silver as an investment can be had as old coins, often called ‘junk’ silver as they are pre 1964 silver coins that have little numismatic value, bullion, or official silver currency.  Some popular silver coins include the American Silver Eagle and the Canadian Maple Leaf.  Silver also comes in various size rounds; bars and even gram size or break away sheets. Silver, specifically bullion is traded in the precious metals market, and can be included in many financial products like IRAs. For example, Individual Retirement Account (IRA) participants may choose to include silver bullion coins and bars in their portfolio, provided that they are of a fineness of at least 99.9% silver. As a disclaimer, I offer no investment advice.  Investing of any sort has risks and you should always perform your own research, and consult with professionals before you invest. Personally I believe in diversification and hedging my portfolio with precious metals, various stocks and bonds prepares me for many future possible economic conditions.
Why silver? Well, its more affordable than gold for the average person.  At today’s (November 2012) rates, silver is about $34 an ounce while gold is $1750 an ounce.  Many arguments for gold versus silver and why one or the other could be made, but for some people holding something of material worth in their hand is what makes silver the better choice.  If I have $300 to spend I can hold a handful of silver coins or one small gold coin.  Psychologically it is more satisfying to hold close to ten ounces of silver. Also the economic forces that influence stocks and bonds are often not the same as those that influence precious metals.  This alone makes silver a good hedge in a balanced and diversified portfolio.
Inflation Resistance
Many like silver for its inflation resistance. Some say its inflation proof, but I will hedge my bets and stick with resistance. The purchasing power of the U.S. dollar has steadily declined over time and is expected to continue to do so. The United States faces a ‘fiscal cliff’ and massive budget shortfalls.  There is a moderate level of economic uncertainty.  One past and probably short-term future solution is for the Federal Reserve to request an injection of money into the system.  While often providing an illusionary boost to the economy this move has a depressing long-term impact on the value of the dollar. One of these impacts is inflation.  Inflation has many theoretical causes and there are many opposing viewpoints.  In general inflation is not desirable for an economy, especially one in a depressed economic time. Inflation has many causes, but consumers feel is as a loss of purchasing power.  Simply put, our money buys less. Silver has been considered inflation resistant because over the same period as the US dollar has declines in purchasing power, silver has risen in purchasing power.  One ounce of silver in 1950 sold for about 0.75 cents.  Today that same ounce is worth $34.00.  However adjusted for inflation that same 0.75 cents would be worth about $9.60 today. In 1950 you got a full ounce of silver, and in 2012 you could get 1/3 as much.
In the United States the Federal Reserve manages the US currency. The Congress established three key objectives for monetary policy—maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates—in the Federal Reserve Act. Based on current economic conditions a central bank has the ability to cause purposely or inadvertently an inflationary period, deflationary period or devalues their currency. ‘Devaluation’ means official lowering of the value of a country’s currency within a fixed exchange rate system, by which the monetary authority formally sets a new fixed rate with respect to a foreign reference currency. In contrast, depreciation is used to describe a decrease in a currency’s value (relative to other major currency benchmarks) due to market forces, not government or central bankpolicy actions.
Investing in silver is much more than hedging against inflation or currency devaluation.  It is also about diversification and having something tangible.  Most Americans get electronic deposit, use debit and credit cards and rarely if ever see cash.  The cash they do see is paper currency and few folks appreciate the heft of coins in their pocket or purse.  It is easy to loose sight of the value of these electronic intangible bits.  Sure, we can all balance a checkbook and know  $1000 comes in, and five bills later we have $200.  But with debit purchases, electronic transfers and credit cards, each new American generation is removed one more step from hard tangible currency. I know a few people who say they can keep just a debit card and have $5000 in their pocket. There is something to be said for possessing a tangible item of worth. Precious metals are useful in that silver due to its lower cost is capable of being used to possess a moderate wealth in a small space.  While someone can carry a debit card linked to a $5000 account, $5000 in gold is a few small coins and $5000 in silver could fit in a pocket still.
What to buy – coins, junk, rounds, bars?  In my opinion the key is source and price.  Sad to say, you can get scammed.  Disreputable souls will try to sell you fake silver and gold and pass off counterfeit as real. Always purchase from reputable dealers and sources.  If you are looking for junk silver, then head to an established local coin shop who is a member of the various numismatic organizations, and even the local BBB.  Buy local and support local.  The US Mint, and Royal CanadianMint, among others sell direct.  Many reputable silver companies also sell direct as a few dollars over spot.  Provident Precious Metals, Kesef Silver, APMEX, NorthwestTerritorial Mint are all possible sources for your silver purchase. When investing in silver – or making any investment, for that matter – you should always consult with well known, reputable brokers, bankers, financial advisors or dealers. Prior to making any investment, you should make sure the seller is capable of delivering exactly what it is selling, and is providing you with the conditions under which it stands ready to buy back your silver.
Good luck and happy silver collecting.