Some Context


The term “Special Collections” has been used differently over time and also interchangeably with, for instance, “Rare Book Library.” Formally, “Special Collections” designates a department or area where culturally-significant materials in various formats (including rare or fragile books) came to reside in perpetuity. A “Rare Book Library,” narrowly defined, is a collection of rare books that is purposefully accumulated so the term is format-specific in connotation. However, note that rare book libraries often contain associated, non-book materials such as manuscripts, ephemera and artifacts.

Miller under construction 1938

Miller Library on Mayflower Hill, under construction in 1938. Formation of Special Collections at Colby coincided with the move to the new campus and a new library building. Some of our peers have similar stories.

Special Collections departments often have their nucleus in rare book libraries, growing over time to include other physical formats. For instance, Special Collections at Colby began with the sequester of older or fragile volumes located in the library on the old campus, in the 1920s. Rare books came with associated unpublished materials and artifacts, helping to form a rich body of culturally significant materials. The formation of Special Collections departments in this country is a 20th century phenomenon with origins in the 19th century, when the collecting of historical items became a serious endeavor for those with means.

Contextual factors in the formation and development of Special Collections departments in America include the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century and consequent wealth of investors who became collectors, an increasingly literate populace and cultural milestone events such as 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and formation of elite book clubs such as the Grolier Club in New York City. Academic institutions founded in the 19th century, or before, came to acquire older books or to receive them from alumni/ae, faculty and other patrons. Librarians who administered these materials became the caretakers of “treasures.”


Some of our comparable peer institutions benefited – as we did – from campus and/or building renovations, with these events establishing a rare book room or department as a result. Other peers established Special Collections-type units within their respective libraries due to a significant bequest or acquisition.

As each rare book has its own provenance, or history of ownership, each Special Collections department – whatever the name – has its unique story.

Works consulted:

Archer, H Richard. Rare Book Collections. ACRL Monograph Number 27. Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 1965. Print.

Berger, Sidney E. Rare Books and Special Collections. Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 2014. Print.

Cave, Roderick. Rare Book Librarianship. London: Clive Bingley, 1976. Print.

Galbraith, Steven K and Geoffrey D Smith. Rare Book Librarianship: An Introduction and Guide. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2012. Print.

Lerner, Fred. The Story of Libraries. New York: Continuum, 2001. Print.

Peters, Jean. Book Collecting. New York: R R Bowker Company, 1977. Print.