About the Rare Book and Special Collections Division
The Rare Book and Special Collections Division traces its beginnings to
Thomas Jefferson's wish to create a library for statesmen and for the people
of the new nation. After the British burned the Capitol and its library in
1814, Jefferson offered to sell his book collection to Congress. Congress
appropriated money for the purchase, and Jefferson's collection served as
the foundation for the new Library of Congress in 1815. Jefferson's books--in
several languages and covering a great variety of subjects--today form the
nucleus of the division.
Although at first the Library did not create a separate Rare Book Division,
Ainsworth Rand Spofford, Librarian of Congress from 1864 to 1897, gathered
in his office rare books, pamphlets, broadsides, and printed ephemera of
interest to the scholars of his day. The institution also actively sought
out collections that contained rare materials. In 1867 the Library of Congress
purchased the large private library of Peter Force and in 1906 bought the
Russian collection of Gennadii Yudin. Gifts from many generous donors also
added greatly to the rare holdings. Joseph Meredith Toner in 1882 made the
first gift to the nation of a large library--about 43,000 books, pamphlets,
scrapbooks, and bound periodicals on American history, the history of medicine,
and other subjects. In 1925 the Library received the John Boyd Thacher Collection consisting of rare examples of early printing, autographs of notable Europeans,
and a sizable gathering of material on the French Revolution. By the time
of the Thacher gift the Library's considerable number of rare books necessitated
the creation of a special section to house and to care for them. In 1934
the division moved into its present reading room and stack area.
In 1930 Congress authorized the purchase of 3,000 fifteenth-century books
owned by Otto H. Vollbehr, including one of three known perfect copies of
the Gutenberg Bible printed on vellum. From 1943 to 1979 the munificent rare
book donor Lessing J. Rosenwald presented to the Library a collection of
2,600 rare illustrated books that constitutes the finest gathering of rare
books in the Library of Congress.
Today the division's collections amount to nearly 800,000 books, broadsides,
pamphlets, theater playbills, title pages, prints, posters, photographs,
and medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. Although the division's materials
have come into its custody for a variety of reasons--their monetary value,
importance in the history of printing, binding, association interest, or
fragility, they have one point in common: the collections offer scholarly
documentation about the western and American traditions of life and learning.
The division's holdings encompass nearly all eras and subjects, with a
multitude of strengths. The collection of nearly 5,700 incunabula (fifteenth-century
imprints) is the largest such grouping in the Western Hemisphere. Americana
dates from the Columbus letter (1493) to the present and includes more than
16,000 imprints from 1640 to 1800, extensive holdings of western Americana,
Confederate States publications, and thousands of nineteenth-century pamphlets.
The division maintains well over 100 separate collections. The following
serve as examples: PERSONAL LIBRARIES (Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson,
Theodore Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Frederic W.
Goudy, and Harry Houdini); COMPREHENSIVE AUTHOR COLLECTIONS (Walt Whitman,
Henry James, Sigmund Freud, Rudyard Kipling, Benjamin Franklin, and Hans
Christian Andersen); SUBJECT COLLECTIONS (magic, gastronomy, cryptography,
radical literature, papermaking, Sir Francis Drake, and the French Revolution);
LANGUAGE (early Russian, Bulgarian, and Hawaiian imprints); THE ILLUSTRATED
BOOK (the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, artists' books); COLLECTIONS WITH
UNUSUAL PROVENANCE (Russian Imperial and Third Reich Collections); and GENERIC
COLLECTIONS (miniature books, artists' books, Bibles, American children's
books, broadsides, theater playbills, pre-1871 copyright records, documents
of the first fourteen Congresses, and dime novels).
In addition to these special groupings, the general or classified collection--about
one-third of the holdings--reflects the division's strength and contains
at least a few books about virtually every subject that the Library of Congress
as a whole collects. This guide describes many of these collections, and
the appendix lists all the special holdings.
The researcher will find records for only a portion of the division's holdings
in the computer catalog. The division's central card catalog contains over
650,000 cards, providing access to almost all of its collections by author
or other form of main entry and in some instances by subject and title as
well. Additionally, more than 100 special card files describe individual
collections or special aspects of books from many collections not available
in the regular catalogs--for instance, by date, place, and printer for books
from the early years of printing (before 1521 for European books, before
1641 for books in English or printed in Great Britain, before 1801 for American
imprints, and before 1820 for Spanish American imprints), by former owner,
by press (for modern fine printing), or by association interest. Printed
catalogs provide access to individual special collections or have been annotated
to indicate the division's holdings.
The division has always depended on the generosity of donors to create
collections which have national and international stature. Lessing J. Rosenwald made it clear in his 1947 letter to Librarian of Congress Luther Evans that "The
National Library deserves and demands the strongest rare book collection
that it can possibly build." The donation of material, a vital part of our
collecting operation, builds on existing strength and also charts new scholarly
directions. Special funds, such as the Lessing J. Rosenwald Fund, the Margaret
W. Winkelman Fund for Illustrated Books, and the Alfred Whital Stern Fund
for Lincolniana, make a considerable impact on the growth of the division
by developing collections and advancing scholarship using these rich resources.
The division's permanent reading room, modeled after Philadelphia's Independence
Hall, houses the divisional catalogs, reference collection, and reference
staff. The reading room is located in the Thomas Jefferson Building, room
239. Across the hall is the division's Lessing J. Rosenwald Memorial Room.