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Special Collections: Printed Books

I. Program Information

Collection development for the several rare book collections is not tied to any specific department or program at Penn. Rather, it attempts to provide retrospective printed sources capable of serving humanities scholarship in general. Emphases are placed on material that connects readily with current broad research trends and interests, that speaks to existing collection strengths, and that corresponds to areas supported by specific endowed book funds.

II. Collection Description

The collections include over 225,000 volumes ranging in date from the fifteenth century to the present. They are predominantly in classical and modern European languages, and places of imprint are overwhelmingly in Europe and North America.

Because the collections serve the research and learning needs of faculty and students throughout the humanities, they have no single, overarching focus. They have been intentionally developed over the years to reach a broad and diverse constituency in need of special and retrospective materials. While materials are acquired that build on collection strengths, opportunities to expand the range of the collections in support of research and curriculum developments are also important to selection decisions. At the same time, it is important to underscore that books are not acquired simply for their "rarity" or provenance value, unless the latter has some clear and persuasive documentary properties of scholarly value. Neither is "fine printing" a selection criterion; books that happen to be finely printed are added when they are of textual significance. For a fuller description of the collections, consult the Special Collections homepage.

Particular collection strengths include:

  • Shakespeare and the English Renaissance. The more than 25,000 volumes of the Horace Howard Furness Library.
  • Church and society in early modern Europe. The Henry Charles Lea Library of over 18,000 volumes relating principally to the Inquisition and relations between the Church and society in the Mediterranean world.
  • History of Chemistry. The Edgar Fahs Smith Collection contains more than 11,000 volumes on the history of chemistry, including alchemy, pyrotechnics, mining, pharmacology, and technology.
  • Aristotle. Over 600 editions and commentaries published prior to 1750.
  • Italian literature. Approximately 2,600 volumes of literature and criticism during the Renaissance.
  • Elzevir imprints. 1,600 volumes printed between 1583 and 1712.
  • Spanish Golden Age. Including 300 plays of Lope de Vega and substantial holdings of comedias sueltas.
  • Colonial Mexico. The Sydney Keil Collection of some 1,400 books and pamphlets relating to religious and political history through the early nineteenth century.
  • Travel and exploration in North America. The Robert Dechert Collection includes significant holdings relating to the French in Canada and to overland travel in the States.
  • French Revolution. More than 20,000 pamphlets in the Maclure Collection published between 1788 and 1802.
  • English fiction to 1820. The Singer-Mendenhall Collection and its more than 1,500 editions of English novelists, particularly women.
  • Jonathan Swift. The Teerink Collection of some 1,700 editions of Swift printed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
  • Benjamin Franklin. 280 titles in the Curtis Collection printed by Franklin and his associates.
  • American Agriculture. The library of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture. 800 titles from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.
  • Author collections. Strong holdings in editions of Robert Montgomery Bird, Van Wyck Brooks, Theodore Dreiser, James T. Farrell, Waldo Frank, William Dean Howells, Rudyard Kipling, H. L. Mencken, Lewis Mumford, Thomas Paine, Agnes Replier, May Sinclair, Mark Twain, Franz Werfel, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams.

III. Guidelines for Collection Development

  1. Chronological

    From classical antiquity through the early nineteenth century. British and American Literature is collected very selectively up to the present.

  2. Formats

    Original formats are emphasized, though rare and expensive facsimiles are also located here.

  3. Geographical

    Principal areas are Britain and the Continent (especially Italy, Spain, France, and Germany). American materials, chiefly literary, are also collected.

  4. Language

    Principally English, Italian, Spanish, French, German, and the classical languages.

  5. Publication Dates

    From the beginnings of the printed book (ca. 1455) through the present.

IV. Principal Sources of Supply and major Selection Tools

Antiquarian dealers' catalogues and individual quotations from dealers constitute the major sources of supply. Participation at auctions is infrequent. Visits to dealers are made regularly throughout the year to examine stock.

V. Subjects Collected and Levels of Collecting


VI. Subjects Excluded

Though not excluded by policy, "fine printing" is generally not collected.

VII. Cooperative Arrangements and Related Collections

Cooperative arrangements are in place within the Library system and among the array of regional special collections libraries. Within the University, Special Collections tends not to collect art and architecture, archeology, and Judaica. These are all areas collected by other units at Penn. In the greater Philadelphia area, Special Collections generally avoids the history of medicine, the physical sciences, and natural history, as well as Americana. These areas are well covered by institutions such as the Library Company, the College of Physicians, the Museum of Natural History, and the American Philosophical Society.