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Archives & Special Collections

What are Special Collections

Special collections are libraries or departments within libraries that store, protect, and provide access to rare and/or unique books, and other materials that do not normally fall within the scope of a library’s circulating collections.

Materials in these collections are kept in a separate department because of the need for special handling, for security, and sometimes because of their monetary value or their rarity. The definition of rarity is tricky and can differ according to book collectors and to rare book librarians, as each may have different goals in building their collections.

Rare Books

Some books are considered rare because of:

  • Their content- if the content within the book is important, unique, or valuable to the specific library or in general.
  • Their scarcity or the number of existing copies- there may be very few copies of the book. However, if the book is not important or does not contain unique or important content, scarcity may not necessarily mean that the book is considered rare.
  • Their age- the book could be very old and have a unique printing history--but that alone sometimes does not make it rare.
  • Their condition- the book may have survived (along with being important and/or scarce) in good condition with no wear or tear, complete with all of its pages and content.
  • Their binding- the binding of the book may have survived in its original condition, or may have been designed by a well-known binder, or may have been produced as a special binding in limited numbers.
  • The edition- a book in its first (1st) edition, which means that it is the first appearance of the text in print, can be considered rare if it is important, or scarce. First editions that are printed in limited or small numbers are generally prized by book collectors, as are first editions of modern literary authors.
  • Autographs or association- An author’s signature or presentation inscription can increase a book's importance and uniqueness, especially if the author is well-known, but on its own it does not make a book rare. Books owned by famous people and inscribed or annotated by them are often considered rare.

Example: A good example of a universally acknowledged rare book is the Gutenberg Bible. This Bible is considered to be the first book that was printed with movable type. There were only 180 copies of this Bible printed, and currently less than 50 survive. Of these 50 existing copies only 21 are complete.