Special collections: printed books collection development policy

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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.

Collection description

The collections include over 260,000 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. 

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 from 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, with over 1,000 titles from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.
  • Women's literature. The Caroline F. Schimmel Fiction Collection of Women in the American Wilderness, from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, with over 7,500 titles.
  • Fine and Private Press Books/Artists' Books. Strong holdings in American Fine and Private Press books, from the late nineteenth century through the twenty-first century, as well as a representative collection of artists' books.
  • Music scores and sheet music. Over 2,500 pieces in the Keffer Collection of Sheet Music and over 2,600 pieces in the Marian Anderson Collection of Printed Music, along with nearly 700 early music scores.
  • Cookbooks and the Culinary Arts. Major holdings in the collections of Esther Aresty, Chef Fritz Blank, and Nick Malgieri.
  • Children's Books. Over 1,200 illustrated children's books in the Atha Tehon Thiras Collection.
  • Comics, Cartoons, and Graphic Novels. Over 20,000 comic books and over 4,000 graphic novels, compilations, and works of criticism and history, and many smaller collections.
  • Japanese prints. Strong holdings in woodblock and other prints from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.
  • Dreyfus Affair. The Lorraine Beitler Collection of the Dreyfus Affair, with over 1,000 items.
  • Print Collections. Numerous collections of broadsides, pamphlets, brochures, and other ephemeral materials, including Atomic Age pamphlets, cookery pamphlets, cigarette and trade cards, poetry chapbooks, American and British ballads, political pamphlets, and postcards.
  • Bibles. Important collection of printed Bibles, including 400 items in the Evans Bible Collection.
  • 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.

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.

Principal sources of supply and major selection tools

Gifts of collections remain the most important source of materials. Antiquarian dealers' catalogues and individual quotations from dealers constitute another major source of materials. Participation at auctions is fairly regular. Attendance at book fairs is generally limited but quite important. Visits to dealers are made occasionally throughout the year to examine stock. 

Subjects excluded

Nothing is excluded by policy.

Cooperative arrangements

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, archaeology, 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.