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American Women: Rare Books and Special Collections

Part of the American Women series, this guide highlights the rare book holdings related to U.S. women's history, demonstrates the richness and variety of these resources, and points out some of the division's contemporary holdings and unique treasures.

Introduction

Mercy Otis Warren. History of the rise, progress, and termination of the American Revolution: interspersed with biographical, political, and moral observations : in three volumes. 1805. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits,
A Poets pen all scorn I should thus wrong,
For such despite they cast on Female wits:
If what I do prove well, it won't advance,
They'l say it's stoln, or else it was by chance

—Anne Bradstreet, 16781

This gentle protest against indiscriminate condemnation of women's writings was penned by Anne Bradstreet (1613-1672), the first woman poet to be published in colonial America. Bradstreet received praise and approval from her male contemporaries, including influential clergyman Cotton Mather, and her poems on a variety of subjects, sacred and secular, were published in London in 1650 by a kinsman. They were subsequently published posthumously in an expanded compilation in Boston in 1678.

Both in her breadth of subjects—her poems addressed not only home and family, but nature, history, philosophy, and religion—and in her sensitivity to prejudices against women's writings, Bradstreet is a worthy pathfinder for the women who have followed her.

Women in Mr. Jefferson's Library

Thomas Jefferson sought out the writings of several American and English women. While president, he subscribed to Mercy Otis Warren's History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (Boston: Manning and Loring, 1805) for himself and his cabinet. He owned a volume of Warren's poems, as well as a volume by Phillis Wheatley.

Jefferson also acquired Catherine Macaulay's History of England, Lady Mary Chudleigh's essays on ethics, and Jane Marcet's Conversations on Chemistry. He also owned a 1632 compilation on English laws relating to women and a 1742 copy of Mary Eales's Compleat Confectioner, as well as novels by Eliza Haywood, Mary Manley, Teresia Phillips, and Anne Germaine, Baronne de Staël-Holstein.

About the Collections

The Rare Book and Special Collection Division reflects the eclectic interests of its premier patron, Thomas Jefferson, his unrelenting passion for learning, and his belief that the unrestricted pursuit of knowledge is crucial to the continuing health of the nation. After the British burned the Capitol and the congressional library in 1814, Jefferson offered to sell his book collection to Congress. Jefferson's great library of books in several languages and covering an amazing variety of subjects became the foundation for the new Library of Congress in 1815, and today is the cornerstone of the Library's rare collections.

The Library did not create a separate Rare Book and Special Collections Division until 1934 when the division moved into its present reading room and stack area, but the institution had been actively seeking out collections of rare materials since the visionary Ainsworth Rand Spofford was Librarian of Congress (1864-97). The purchase of the private library of Peter Force in 1867, as well as gifts from major donors, notably the medical library of Joseph Meredith Toner in 1882, strengthened its rare Americana holdings, including sources related to the history of women in the United States.

Anne Bradstreet. Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety of Wit and Learning.. 1678. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Today the division's collections number nearly one million books, broadsides, pamphlets, theater playbills, title pages, prints, posters, photographs, and medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. The division's materials have come into its custody for a variety of reasons, including their importance in the history of printing, monetary value, association interest, binding, fragility, or need for security. Most Library holdings printed in the Roman alphabet before 1800 are found here, including nearly half of all such printing in what is now the United States.

As its name suggests, the division's holdings are organized in two ways:

  1. The Rare Book Classified Collection is a microcosm of the General Collections, arranged by the same subject classifications and including books, pamphlets, and serials acquired by transfer, gift, and purchase, on all subjects and concerning all time periods.
  2. Special Collections include well over one hundred separate collections created either by the donor or by Library staff and tend to have a specific subject or format focus.

Both arrangements are strong in Americana and offer rich sources for the study of the contributions and impact of women as participants in American history and culture.

Major subject strengths include women's suffrage, women's contributions to various nineteenth-century social reform movements, and selected literary works by women.

These strengths were developed over time through a combination of factors including generous gifts of participants like Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt, gifts by collectors like Katherine Bitting and Marian S. Carson, and ongoing acquisition through copyright deposit and purchase.


Notes

  1. Anne Bradstreet. The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America (Boston: John Foster, 1678; PS711.S4 1678 Am Imp), prologue, stanza 5. Back to Text

By looking at aspects of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division's holdings ranging from religion and reform to popular culture and literature, we will highlight the strengths of rare book holdings related to United States women's history, to demonstrate the richness and variety of these resources, and to point out some of the division's contemporary holdings and unique treasures.

Because the Rare Book Classified Collection mirrors holdings in the General Collections, most of the same subjects and formats are found in both and may be accessed using the same subject headings and search strategies. Because not all of the division's special collections have online access, it is important to consult special card files and finding aids in the Rare Book Reading Room in addition to the online catalog.

While we cannot touch on all subjects and formats that might interest researchers, we hope this survey of holdings will suggest new ways in which the division's resources can be used to complement materials found in other Library divisions to further the understanding of American women and celebrate their complex contributions to our world.

Acknowledgments

First and foremost, I must thank those who spent tireless hours curating, writing, and developing the content for the original American Women guide, a publication that was later turned into the website from which this LibGuide has grown.

Rosemary Fry Plakas and Jacqueline Coleburn, authors and collaborators of the original chapter in American Women, this LibGuide is a resounding testament to your dedication to providing patrons with a better understanding of our collections, as well as furthering the Library's mission of providing various avenues of access to these amazing resources.

I wish to thank both Mark Dimunation, Chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, and Michael North, Head of the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room, for their support during this project. 

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