The Special Collections of the Brown University Library contain more than 3,000,000 items, well over half the library’s total resources. Holdings range from Babylonian clay tablets and Egyptian papyri to current-day books, manuscripts, and ephemera. Among the more unexpected items are portraits and paintings by old masters, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s tea set, Napoleon’s death mask, 6,000 toy soldiers, the last daguerrotype taken of Poe, and Whitman’s personal copy of Leaves of Grass. But regardless of age, format, or content, the unifying objective for all the holdings of Special Collections is their potential for supporting the curricular mission of the University and the research interests of the broader community of scholars.
The collections, housed primarily in the John Hay Library, include some 400,000 monographs, 1,000,000 manuscripts, 500,000 pieces of sheet music, and 60,000 each of broadsides, photographs, prints, and postage stamps, plus over 1.5 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 Henry David Thoreau, George Orwell, George Bernard Shaw, and T. E. Lawrence, and manuscript and archival collections that offer research opportunities in a wide variety of historical and literary subjects.
The approximately 300 separate collections have been accumulated over a span of almost 250 years. They fall into two general categories: books or other research materials originally included in the library’s general collections and later isolated because of value, age, rarity, fragility, historical interest, or potential for enhancement of a special collection; and collections or individual items donated or purchased with the intention of sustaining their unique qualities or separate identities.
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, the McLellan Lincoln Collection, and the Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays. All three of these collections were developed with a particular focus by their donors and all have been augmented continuously through purchase and additional gifts.