Skip to Main Content

Religion Collections in Libraries and Archives: Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia

Library of Congress: Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room

Introductory Information

Library of Congress: Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room

Address: 101 Independence Ave. SE, Thomas Jefferson Building, LJ 239, Washington, D.C. 20540-4740

Telephone number: 202-707-3448

Contact information

Online catalog

Digital Collections link

Access Policies

Hours of service

Open to the public: Yes. Must be 18 years of age. As many collections are stored offsite, researchers are strongly encouraged to contact Reference Staff prior to their visit.

Interlibrary loan: No

Reference policy: Reference requests are accepted by Ask-a-Librarian form, telephone, in person

A Library of Congress Reader Registration card is required to use Library of Congress reading rooms. To obtain a registration card, applicants must be 16 years of age or older and present photo identification bearing a verifiable permanent address. Please see Reader Registration and Access to Library of Congress Reading Rooms for more information.

Please note that one must be 18 years of age in order to use the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room

Background note:
When the burning of the Capitol by the British destroyed Congress' library in 1814, Thomas Jefferson offered to sell Congress his broad and varied collection of books. This collection became the basis of the Library of Congress and serves today as the core collection of the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room. Jefferson's library contained nearly 200 works of a religious nature, nearly all pertaining to Christianity or the Bible. He also owned an English translation of the Koran and two works on the gods and goddesses of the classical era. While the Library of Congress did not initially create a special division for its rare materials, over time it collected such a large variety of rare books, pamphlets, manuscripts, and ephemera that the quantity of material created the need for such a division by the 1920s. It moved to its present reading room in 1934.


Books and monographs
The Division owns approximately 43% of all books known to have been published in America before 1801. By the very nature of publishing at this time, much of this material relates to religion in some way. Geographical strengths of the collection are American and European.

It is impossible to note all titles or collections, but some of the most important collections containing religion titles are listed below:

  • Bible Collection: 1,471 titles from the 15th to the 20th centuries in 150 languages. This collection includes the only Bible authorized by Congress; the first polyglot Bible (1517); the Ostroh Bible, also known as the first Slavonic Bible, published in 1581; and the Eliot Indian Bible, the first Bible to be printed in America (1663).
  • Miniature Bible Collection: about 50 items which belong to the miniature book collection--items of 10cm or less. Most are in English, although there are volumes in Hebrew, German, Dutch and Japanese.
  • Children's Literature Collection: books from the late 17th century to the present. Much of the earlier material deals with religious topics.
  • Christian Science/Mary Baker Eddy collection: 325 titles received through copyright and as gifts on the founding of Christian Science. Much of this early material is difficult to find elsewhere.
  • Early Bulgarian Imprint Collection: some of the earliest books printed in the Bulgarian language. The collection includes 20 religious calendars and approximately 150 religious books, the most special among them an 1806 edition of Kyriakodromion, a collection of 96 sermons prepared by Bishop Sofronii of Vratsa. This was the first book to be published in modern Bulgaria.
  • Early Printing Collection: titles from 1501-1520, many on religious topics. The majority of this collection is printed in Latin.
  • Gryphius Collection: contains much early religious material. Gryphius was a printer in Lyon in the 16th century and a conduit for much of the printing done in Venice at the time. Most of this material is printed in Latin.
  • Hawaiian Imprint Collection: 110 items including religious texts from the missionary press of Elisha Loomis, the first press west of the Mississippi on the Islands.
  • Incunabula Collections: encompassing nearly 5,700 items, it is the largest in the western hemisphere. Many of these belong to the John Boyd Thacher Collection and the Otto Vollbehr collection, the latter of which contains the Gutenburg Bible that is on permanent display in the Main Hall of the Jefferson Building. Items include works by Plato, Jerome, Augustine, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Marsilio Ficino, among many others. Material from this collection is in mainly in Latin with some Greek, Hebrew, German, Italian, and French.
  • Cotton Mather publications: in the American Imprint collection.
  • Old Believer's books: a number of books published by Old Believer communities who rejected the reforms adopted by the Russian Orthodox Church after the schism in 1666.
  • Reformation/Luther Collection: over 400 imprints by Luther, John Calvin, Johann Eck, Melanchthon, and others, primarily from the 16th century. Some of these items contain woodcut border illustrations and contemporary annotations. 142 of these works are from the Vollbehr collection. The majority of this collection is in German with some Latin.
  • Russian Orthodox calendars: daily calendars with religious sayings or biblical verses for each day. These were very popular especially in the 19th century. Some used them as diaries as well as calendars.
  • Russian Imperial Collection, also known as the Imperial Palace Collection: owned by the Romanoff family and sold to a United States book dealer. This collection contains many personal religious books with ornate bindings. As a family collection this group of books represents Russian Orthodox culture of the 19th century. Religious topics and formats include Orthodox doctrine, sermons, devotional books, (including many works by Saint Feofan), and a Hebrew-Russian Old Testament.
  • Rosenwald Collection: fine examples of illustrated books including Books of Hours, Bibles and other religious titles, 15th through the 20th centuries. The majority of this collection is printed in Latin, Italian, and French.
  • Yudin Collection: fine Russian personal library of 18th- and 19th-century publications. The range of subject matter is broad and includes literature, history and bibliography. Religion is also found here with works on the Orthodox Eastern Church, church calendars, Orthodox church doctrine, Russian church history, and a book on Satanism. This collection also contains small gems such as the very rare Russian calendar that Tolstoy created for children.

The researcher will find catalog records for the majority of the Division's holdings in the computer catalog. Recent acquisitions may not appear, and searching for early printed material in the online catalog in various languages can be challenging. Researchers are strongly encouraged to contact the Reading Room Staff for assistance. Many of the collections are stored in an offsite location. Some collections have printed catalogs that provide access to individual special collections or have been annotated to indicate the Division's holdings. These reference resources can be especially useful for copy-specific research projects.

Periodicals and newspapers
It is difficult to estimate just how many periodicals are contained in the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room. Some periodicals are kept here as adjunct items to a particular special collection. Christian Science periodicals would be an example of this. Most other periodicals are here as part of the pre-1801 collection. Periodicals that begin before 1801 and continue through but not past 1830 are kept here in full. Those that begin before 1801 and continue past 1830 are kept here through 1801 only.

Newspapers are not kept in any great number by this reading room. Most of the Library's collections belong to the Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room. Researchers interested in serial literature should contact the Division prior to their visit to insure that the desired material is available, and that staff have time to locate specific issues.

Archives, manuscripts, correspondences, and/or oral histories
While the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room contains primarily printed materials, there are some important manuscript collections relating to religion:

  • Giant Bible of Mainz: written and illustrated in Mainz, Germany around the time that Gutenburg began the printing of his Bible. This national treasure has been digitized in full, and is now available through the online catalog for everyone to enjoy.
  • Medieval and Renaissance Manuscript Collection: Pre-1601 western manuscripts containing ecclesiastical, Biblical and liturgical materials.
  • Medieval Manuscript Fragments Collection: manuscript leaves or portions of leaves, many of which have been repurposed for use in the bindings of printed texts. The earliest fragments date to the ninth century. Mostly written in Latin, the subjects include biblical, liturgical, devotional, theological material as well as canon law.

Multi-format Collections

  • M and S American Extremism Collection: contains a considerable amount of material which documents the American religious right from 1925-1981, particularly their involvement in nationalism, anti-communism, anti-humanism, anti-Semitism and the movement for media decency. The collection's formats include: broadsides, pamphlets, books, newspapers, newsletters, magazines, catalogs, subscription and membership cards, order blanks, petitions, advertisements and bumper stickers.
  • Harry Houdini Collection: books, pamphlets, periodicals, and ephemera dealing with spiritualism, magic and witchcraft.
  • Mormon Collection: a very complete set of early editions of the Book of Mormon have been digitized, and are available through the online catalog for all to enjoy. A First edition of the Book of Mormon sits in a display case in the Reading Room, where visitors may enjoy it and take photos without a flash. For more information on research involving this collection, please contact the Rare Book and Special Collections Division directly.
  • Shaker Collection: 487 pamphlets and broadsides constituting one of the largest collections of Shaker literature in the world.
  • Spanish-American Collection: primarily 17th- and 18th-century missionary tracts, records, accounts, histories and dictionaries published in Latin America, including the Doctrina Breve, the earliest complete book printed in the Western hemisphere now in existence.

Pamphlets and Tracts

  • Daniel Murray Pamphlet Collection: 384 pamphlets covering the dates 1865 to 1910 on all aspects of African-American life. These include sermons, church histories, denominational addresses, and pamphlets showing the central role of the church in the black community.
  • Miscellaneous Bound Pamphlets: hundreds of volumes of bound pamphlets from the 17th through the 19th centuries with MLC enhanced, item level cataloging. The collection includes many sermons and church records.
  • Theological Pamphlets: 168 volumes of uncataloged, bound theological pamphlets. They include sermons, tracts and church and denominational reports.
  • Wilberforce Eames Collection: 19th century religious tracts in various languages including Bulgarian and Tamil.

Databases and/or electronic resources
Rare Book focused Electronic Resources
E-Resources Homepage

Digital collections

Subject Headings

African Americans--Religion; Bible; Christian Right; Christian Science; Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Eastern Orthodox Church; Jerome, Saint, d. 419 or 420; Luther, Martin, 1483-1546; Magic; Missions and missionaries; Reformation; Religious tracts; Russian Orthodox Church; Sermons; Shakers; Spiritualism