About this Reading Room
The unique materials of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, now totaling nearly 1 million items, include books, broadsides, pamphlets, theater playbills, prints, posters, photographs, modern and contemporary artists’ books, medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, and much more. At the center is Thomas Jefferson's book collection, which was sold to Congress in 1815.
The collections housed in The Rare Book and Special Collections Division amount to nearly 1 million items, encompassing nearly all eras and subjects maintained in well over 100 separate collections. All of these collections offer scholarly documentation about the western and American traditions of life and learning. The Division’s collection of nearly 5,700 incunabula (fifteenth-century imprints) is the largest such grouping in the Western Hemisphere. Our Americana collections include more than 16,000 imprints from 1640 to 1800, including the Columbus letter of 1493.
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. (Also see: First Booklist of the Library of Congress: A Facsimile external link , Washington, DC, 1981.)
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 1 million 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.