This overview describes the holdings of the Rare Books and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress. It excludes rarities and rare manuscripts or books in the custody of other Library divisions, such as the Music Division or the Asian divisions. The Rare Book and Special Collections Division's holdings amount to approximately 750,000 books, broadsides, pamphlets, theater programs and 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--monetary value, importance in the history of printing, binding, association interest (e.g., Presidential Inaugural Bibles), 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 is the largest such grouping in the Western Hemisphere. The collections of Americana date from a Columbus letter (1493) to the present, and include more than 16,000 imprints from 1640 to 1800, extensive holdings of western Americana, Confederate States publications, and thousands of nineteenth-century works.
The division maintains well over 100 separate collections (see appendix). The following serve as examples: personal libraries (Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Frederic W. Goudy, Bruce Rogers, 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); generic collections: (miniature books, artists' books, Bibles, American children's books, broadsides, theater playbills and programs, pre-1871 copyright records, private presses and fine printing, 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.
The Library's rare American and British literature material is not comprehensive and this may seem strange to the outsider, but historical reasons exist for this situation. Early Library reports, for instance, observed that "the American literature collections are weak in relation to the collections of American historical material."
Until the 1940s much of the American and British literature up to the first half of the twentieth century remained in the general collections, where the books were subjected to extensive use and consequent damage. These books show the effects of poor conditions and unregulated use.
The first attempt at upgrading the literature collections came in 1943 when Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish launched a program of transferring to the Rare Book Division the works of twenty-seven living American writers.
The division now has similar collections for several hundred important British and American authors, and for a selection of important small literary presses. For American authors the copyright office automatically sends to the division one copy of first editions of these writers and presses. For literature lacunae, donors are sought.
Contemporary mass market paperbacks, mostly in genres such as romance, historical fiction, mysteries, horror, science fiction, and some young adult fiction series, have been collected by the division since 1980. These are acquired principally through copyright deposit.