Guide to the Research Collections



The Rare Book Division contains approximately 91,000 volumes (including books, pamphlets, and bound volumes of newspapers), 20,000 broadsides (including broadside ballads, proclamations, and newscarriers'' addresses), and miscellaneous items (such as globes, medals, badges, campaign buttons, etc.). It is open to the public upon presentation of an admission card obtained from the Research Libraries Administrative Office.

The Rare Book Division has developed from the collection of Americana, early Bibles, and voyages and travels formed by James Lenox. With the exceptions noted in the following paragraph, the division houses all books in the library published before 1601 in Europe, before 1641 in England, and before 1801 in the Americas, in addition to many other rare or valuable items of all periods including the present (such as modern examples of fine printing and private press books).

This division might be called the "general" rare book division, as other rare books in the Research Libraries are housed according to language, special subject interest, or format. Books in Hebrew, for example, are housed in the Jewish Division, books in the Cyrillic alphabet in the Slavonic Division, books in Oriental languages in the Oriental Division, and books on black culture are kept in the Schomburg Center. In the area of special subject interests, books on music are found in the Music Division, books on the dance in the Dance Collection, American and English literary first and significant editions and manuscripts are kept in the Berg Collection, and books relating to tobacco are found in the Arents Tobacco Collection. Books in fine bindings or notable for their illustrations are housed in the Spencer Collection, while books in parts are found in the Arents Collection of Books in Parts. The Rare Book Division does, however, include materials in certain of these categories, such as American literary first editions and books in parts.

The chief strength of the Rare Book Division is Americana, especially materials published before 1801. The holdings are particularly rich in the earliest period, 1493 to 1550; in English Americana before 1641; and in publications dealing with the American Revolution. Among outstanding rarities in these categories are the only known copy of the Columbus letter to Luis de Santangel (Barcelona, 1493) announcing the discovery of a new world; the Bay Psalm Book (1640), the first book printed in what is now the United States; and the first printing of the Declaration of Independence (Philadelphia, 1776), as well as one of two known copies of the first New York edition, printed by John Holt.

Other specialties of the division are:

This listing indicates particular strengths of the division, but is far from exhaustive. Mention may also be made of some 700 incunabula from the total of about 850 in the library. There are also block books, a strong collection of early editions of Sacro Bosco's Sphaera Mundi, the Whitney collection of early English cookbooks, the Beadle and Adams dime novel collection, children's books, chapbooks, and many other materials.

Most of the world's famous books are to be found in the library, either in original editions, later editions, reprints, or some kind of facsimile. In cases where the original edition is in the collections, an effort is made to provide the work in some less valuable form for general use. The method of this Guide is to consider rare and valuable materials, together with general holdings, as resources for research, and to discuss them in connection with relevant subject areas. The following remarks on the Rare Book Division attempt no more than a summary description of the collection.