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American Women: Rare Books and Special Collections

Searching for Rare Books

Significant progress has been made in recent years to provide online cataloging records for the division's holdings. The phrase “Request in: Rare Book/Special Collections Reading Room” appears at the bottom of online records for rare books.

If the book is in a special collection within the division's holdings, an abbreviation of that collection name is part of the call number. Examples include “Am Imp” for the American Imprint Collection and “Carson Coll” for the Marian S. Carson Collection.

NOTE: Materials in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division cannot be requested online. If you would like to consult Rare items, you must do so in person in the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room.

The Card Catalog

Special card files in the reading room still provide valuable access information for collections that have not been cataloged and for cataloged collections for which there are no records online. Other special files have provenance, inscription, and binding information on books from many collections. These and other finding aids are mentioned, where appropriate, throughout this guide.

The division's own dictionary catalog contains 650,000 cards that provide access to almost the whole of the division's collections by author or other form of main entry and, in some instances, by subject and title also. The card file was closed in 1991 and no cards have been added since then. It remains available in the reading room for access to those collections whose records are not yet online.

Other Resources

There is no single catalog that contains records for all items held in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Some items are found only in published bibliographies or divisional finding aids. The staff in the Division can help locate and use these additional resources.

Finding Older Materials in the Collections

Most Library of Congress patrons who use the rare book collections are looking for early printed books and pamphlets. When searching for older material, whether online or in printed guides, it is critical that you use both new and old search terms. Popular vocabulary, and therefore library subject headings, have changed over time, and the Library of Congress has not had the resources to update every heading. Updating and adding to the online catalog is an ongoing process.

Examples of Older Headings

  • Some older records will still be under the heading “Negroes” or “Afro-Americans” rather than the current heading “African Americans.”
  • “Woman” has been updated to “Women.” This pattern extends to more specific headings such as “African American women” and “African American women authors.” Refer to the tab above called "LC Subject Headings" for an overview of subject searching at the Library.

Throughout this guide, we suggest effective search strategies for particular rare book collections and formats.

Using Subscription Databases

The subscription resources marked with a padlock are available to researchers on-site at the Library of Congress. If you are unable to visit the Library, you may be able to access these resources through your local public or academic library.

The following databases are useful for locating early American publications in a wide range of formats: