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June2009
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Rare Finds for Rare Book


A first-edition treatise by Galileo on the Milky Way, reflections on 9/11 as art, and rare editions of Jules Verne classics all have found their way into the collections of the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division. More than 75 new items have been added.

Rare Book and Special Collection Division curator Dan De Simone shows Galileo’s renderings of the Milky Way in the “Siderius Nuncius” volume. 2008 Lessing J. Rosenwald Room. Rare Book and Special Collections Division

“What we have here are pieces of culture and human experience. They range from telling the stories of ordinary people in extraordinary times all the way up to single books that fundamentally changed the world,” said Mark Dimunation, chief of the division, in an article of the December 2008 Library of Congress Information Bulletin.

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 hostile British soldiers 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 in 1815. Jefferson's books—in several languages and covering a great variety of subjects--today form the nucleus of the division.

Nearly two-thirds of Jefferson's books were lost in another fire in the Capitol on Christmas Eve 1851. As part of the Library’s Bicentennial, Dimunation and his staff spearheaded a campaign to reassemble all of the original editions of works that had been in Jefferson's library when it came to Washington. More information can be found in a June 2008 article of the LCIB.

Jefferson’s Library is also featured in an online exhibition.

Although at first the Library did not create a separate Rare Book Division, Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1864 to 1897) gathered 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, including the Russian collection of Gennadii Yudin; Joseph Meredith Toner’s library of 43,000 books, pamphlets, scrapbooks, and bound periodicals on American history, the history of medicine, and other subjects; 3,000 15th-century books owned by Otto H. Vollbehr, including one of three known perfect copies of the Gutenberg Bible printed on vellum; and Lessing J. Rosenwald’s collection of 2,600 rare illustrated books.

In 1934, the division moved to its present-day location on the second floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building, and its reading room is modeled after Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. 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. More than 100 collections are maintained, including the personal libraries of Harry Houdini and Susan B. Anthony, author collections of Walt Whitman and Hans Christian Andersen, subject collections on gastronomy and cryptography, and generic collections such as dime novels and Bibles.


A. Rare Book and Special Collection Division curator Dan De Simone shows Galileo’s renderings of the Milky Way in the “Siderius Nuncius” volume. 2008. Michaela McNichol. Library of Congress. Reproduction Information: Reproduction information not available.

B. Lessing J. Rosenwald Room. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction information not available.