The History of Special Collections at Brown University


The Special Collections of the Brown University Library contain more than 2,500,000 items, well over half the library's total resources. Holdings range from Babylonian clay tablets and Egyptian papyri to books, manuscripts and ephemera. Among the more unexpected items are portraits and paintings by old masters, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's tea set, Amy Lowell's cigars, 5,000 toy soldiers, and locks of hair from several famous heads - among them, Lincoln, Napoleon, and Sir Walter Scott.

The collections, housed in the John Hay Library include some 300,000 monographs, 725,000 manuscripts, 500,000 pieces of sheet music, and 50,000 each of broadsides, photographs, prints and postage stamps, plus over one million archival files and records. Among the most notable holdings are the world's largest collection of American poetry and plays, one of the nation's finest history of science collections, an exceptional collection of Lincolniana, and an internationally-known collection on military history. There are also important collections of incunabula, collections devoted to the writings of major individual authors, such as Poe, Thoreau, Zola, and William Blake, and manuscript and archival collections that offer research opportunities in a wide variety of historical and literary subjects.

Examples of the first category are the Williams Table Collection, the re-assembled colonial college library, and the Dated Book Collection, the library's first effort to transfer rare books from general stacks to a more sequestered environment. The second category includes collections such as the Lownes Collection of Significant Books in the History of Science and the Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays Both were developed with a particular focus by their donors.

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Excerpted from: Special Collections at Brown University: A History and Guide,
Providence, Rhode Island: The Friends of the Library of Brown University, 1988
Funding provided by Daniel G. Siegel (Class of 1957), and the Twenty-First Century Fund