Large libraries, be they university or city, aren’t just good for research and circulation. They also often have amazing special collections centered around singular, often esoteric, topics. These collections are often donated via will by individuals who collected the items over a lifetime of obsession. Many library patrons may not realize it, but often these special collections are surprisingly accessible. The items usually don’t circulate, but libraries often put on exhibits or provide special reading rooms for people who want to take in the collection. There are many, many special collections around the world worthy of discussion, but here are 15 that we found particularly interesting.
15. The George Kelley Paperback and Pulp Fiction Collection (University of Buffalo)
The George Kelley Paperback and Pulp Fiction Collection houses over 25,000 pulp fiction books and magazines. The bulk of the collection comes from Dr. George Kelley, and was further added to by Dr. Thomas Shaw and Margarete Shaw. The collection is open for in house perusing with appointment, and the website for the collection features an in depth look at 185 books in the collection, as you can see here with Isaac Asimov’s A Whiff Of Death.
14. Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection (University of Texas)
The Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection is a massive collection of over 250,000 maps housed at the University of Texas. That’s an impressive statistic, but what really makes this collection stand out is the accessibility. The collection is considered “open stack” which means any University of Texas students, faculty, staff and the general public can check out the maps in the collection. You can also view over 11,000 of the maps online here.
13. The Treasure Island Collection (University of Minnesota)
The University of Minnesota has over 450 illustrated editions of Treasure Island, from the original appearance in magazine form to the interpretations by artists such as N.C. Wyeth. A man named Lionel Johnson accumulated the collection over many years of travel to cities like New York, London, and Paris, giving each subsequent purchase a number for his catalog of books. The University of Minnesota includes other unique collections, such as this accumulation of Oz works and this collection of Paul Bunyan paraphernalia.
12. Nurse Romance Novels (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)
Talk about esoteric, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has a large collection of dime store novels with nurses as central characters. They were donated to UWM by former UWM Art Professor Leslie Bellavance who collected them as part of her research on pop culture depictions of nurses. For awhile UWM was putting a nurse cover on the collection’s website every week, but it looks to have stopped last year. Still worth spending a few minutes browsing the archives however.
11. The Frank W. Tober Collection on Literary Forgery (University of Delaware)
The Tober collection on literary forgery deals, naturally enough, with authors who published (or attempted to publish) works that were not their own. Perhaps the most famous of these was Clifford Irving, who attempted to publish a forged autobiography of Howard Hughes. There are many other interesting pieces in this collection however, including Shakespeare forgers, as well as a great deal of reference material on the subject of literary forgery.
10. John G. White Chess and Checkers Collection (Cleveland Public Library)
The John G. White chess and checkers collection claims to the largest chess library in the world. It includes instruction books, chess problems, Asian and European chess manuscripts, treatises on the game of chess, tournament records, and chess periodicals. It also includes dozens of chess sets that document the historical and artistic development of chess pieces throughout history. The collection altogether has over 30,000 manuscripts, documents, images, etc., many of which are extremely rare.
9. UCLA Film And Television Archive
It’s fitting of course that a college in LA would have a special collection centered around film. UCLA’s collection is the largest of any university in the world, and includes over 220,000 titles and an incredible 27 million feet of newsreel footage. UCLA provides onsite access to its holdings after making a viewing appointment, and the university provides over 200 special public screenings a year.
8. The George Arents Collection on Tobacco (New York Public Library)
The George Arents tobacco collection encompasses over one hundred years of collecting by George Arents. The collection includes almost any kind of work dealing with tobacco, even works with only incidental mentions. There are many hundreds of interesting prints, as well as literature and historical works.
7. Fore-edge paintings (Boston Public Library)
These are a true lost art. Fore-edge paintings are paintings on the external pages of a book, that can only be seen when the edges of the pages are displayed. Much easier to grok by simply looking at the pictures, which are amazing:
6. The Grateful Dead Archive (UC Santa Cruz)
The Grateful Dead got their start in California, and UC Santa Cruz has put together an exhaustive catalog of the group’s thirty years of existence. Included in the archive are original documents, media clippings, show files, programs, newsletters, posters, cover art, photographs, tickets, t-shirts, and stickers. The collection also includes stage props and touring materials. Fitting to the group, a special emphasis is placed on fan media, with fan correspondence and fan art also given a place in the archive.
5. Occult Sciences, Demonology and Witchcraft Collection (University of Sydney)
University libraries already have a bit of a reputation as musty places filled with stacks of dusty, vaguely odd, books, and the University of Sydney takes this imagining to it’s logical conclusion, by housing a large collection of occult material. The collection includes works on demonology, witchcraft, exorcism, the Inquisition, as well as grimoires and spellbooks. They even hold a copy of the Necronomicon, the 1973 edition of which only 348 were printed. This is definitely the place to go if you are looking for 17th century original works dealing with witches and exorcism.
4. The Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature (University of Florida)
The University of Florida’s children’s lit collection is massive, with more than 100,000 volumes published in Great Britain and the United States from 1700 to the present. The library includes over 300 copies of Robinson Crusoe, 100 editions of Pilgrim’s Progress, and virtually every children’s literature work imaginable for the past 200 years.
3. The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation, and Fantasy (Toronto Public Library)
The Merril Collection of science fiction is a non-circulating collection held at the Toronto Public Library that includes more than 68,000 items of science fiction and fantasy, as well as fringe subjects like UFO’s and Atlantean legends. The library also includes a great many early pulp magazines, where science fiction really made it’s way into the collective consciousness. The Merril collection even includes a deep back catalog of role playing games and graphic novels, meaning there’s something here for just about every geek.
2. Comic Art Collection (Michigan State)
Michigan State has one of the biggest comic art collections in the world, with more than 150,000 comic books published in the US since 1935 indexed. They don’t stop with comic books however, they also have an exhaustive comic strip collection, including every known book collection of comic strips, as well as over 500,000 hand clipped daily strips filed away in hand made scrapbooks.
More: Comic Art Collection
1. Various Collections (Smithsonian Institution Libraries)
Our top spot is taken not just by one collection, but by the most impressive group of special collections in the US, held at the various Smithsonian Institution Libraries. Included are:
- The Dibner Science and Technology library, including rare works from Galileo, Kepler, Euclid, Descartes, and Aristotle, among many, many more.
- The Cullman Natural History Library, including hundreds of rare early volumes in botany, accounts of voyages from early Renaissance travels, and a Zoology collection that deals with the earliest classification of animals, including work from Aristotle.
- The National Design Museum Library, including over 1,000 volumes dealing with the World’s Fair, a pop-up book collection with hundreds of instructional pop-up books for children and adults both, and papers, images, and records from many important and notable American design firms.
- The National Air and Space Museum Library which includes 29,000 books, 11,000 bound serials, and a microform collection dealing with the history of aeronautics and astronautics.
- The National Museum of American History Library including over 285,600 catalogs detailing the history of manufacturing in America. These catalogs include product catalogs, technical manuals, advertising brochures, price lists and company histories.