The 20 Most Impressive University Special Collections

Easily one of the neatest perks of campus life for the particularly inquisitive, studious, or proudly nerdy involves perusing the school’s special collections. Most tend to involve some combination of rare books and manuscripts as well as information about school, local, and maybe state history. Even smaller collections always harbor some amazing, insightful gems. But some schools score big time, with archives bursting with veritable treasures and groundbreaking finds. This doesn’t invalidate the inherent worth of the more modest special collections out there, obviously. All the same, though … some out there can only be described with “wow”s.

  1. Early Printed Books and Special Collections at Trinity College Dublin:

    Trinity College Dublin is just being modest. With a title like “Early Printed Books and Special Collections,” one understands how students, faculty, and staff might forget the school just so happens to only house a most insignificant medieval tome known as … The Book of Kells. Its lush stacks also provide a fiercely protective home to over 20,000 documents, with the oldest hailing from the 13th century BCE. Irish history aficionados especially benefit from this amazing special collection, which also holds The Book of Armagh and The Book of Durrow. Other highlights include a Gutenberg Bible leaf and a first edition of an Old Testament by Martin Luther.

  2. The Special Collections Division at Cambridge University:

    Seeing as how British history overflows with correspondence and conquering, it makes perfect sense that one of its premiere institutions would cobble together a not-so-modest collection spanning time and geography. Cambridge University’s Special Collections spans a staggering 12 departments (Bible Society, Chinese, Darwin Correspondence Project, Japanese, Manuscripts & University Archives, Maps, Music, Near and Middle Eastern, Rare Books, Royal Commonwealth Society, South Asian, Tibetan, and Southeast Asian, and the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit) and features primary documents by not-insignificant names like Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Queen Elizabeth I, and more. Holdings from Asian nations number in the hundreds of thousands, standing as one of the largest relevant collections in all of Europe.

  3. Western Manuscripts at Oxford University:

    As with Cambridge, Oxford’s extensive special collections pull directly from England’s past as a hegemonic entity, not to mention its roughly 915 years of operation. No other college or university beats the Sporting Blue when it comes to books printed before 1500, with 5,623 editions and 6,755 copies and counting. Oxford particularly gravitates towards works of political, scientific, mathematical, and literary significance, especially from England, Ireland, and Europe. There are even papyri from ancient Greece! But the focus doesn’t necessarily mean fans of maps, music, and reads from other locations have nothing to pique their fancy here. The Bodleian Library also plays host to thousands of items (mostly books and manuscripts) in the Oriental Collections.

  4. The Historiographical Institute at University of Tokyo:

    Japan’s Cultural Affairs Agency has, thus far, designated one of University of Tokyo’s possessions a National Treasure, with an additional 15 boasting the Important Cultural Property designation. The former, considered amongst The Historiographical Institute’s most valuable holdings for obvious reasons, encompasses 15,133 documents (scrolls, books, letters, and maps) belonging to the Shimazu Clan. It offers up some of the most revealing data regarding the culture, history, politics, economics, and laws of the Heian and Meiji Periods. Some of its oldest items date back to the 3rd century BCE, and the school breaks its veritable museum down into 52 smaller collections for faster perusal. University of Tokyo especially prides itself on extending access to its special holdings to scholars around the world, even going so far as to ship pieces overseas for extended study sessions.

  5. Special Collections at Oberlin College:

    Oberlin’s special collections cover a few different subjects, but its most notable involve the two for which the college receives the most repute – music and political engagement. Violin historian H.K. Goodkind’s collection alone takes up a whopping 40 boxes, and the school also eagerly compiles music and lyrics from the Civil War era. The Thomas Goodwin Collection covers musical theatre, including 19th century programs from the London Philharmonic. When it comes to sociopolitical movements, researchers pick from Anti-Slavery, Labor/Socialism/Communism, World War II, Spanish Civil War, The War of 1812, and Women’s Studies. Orrin W. June’s War of 1812 compilation particularly stands out, packed with primary documents and excruciatingly rare books, manuscripts, maps, and letters painting a wide portrait of the period.

  6. The David Foster Wallace Archive at University of Texas at Austin:

    There’s a lot to love about the Harry Ransom Center and its ardent devotion to preserving items of cultural and artistic significance! In 2010, though, the University of Texas at Austin snagged more than a few headlines when it announced its acquisition of David Foster Wallace’s personal archives following his tragic suicide. Because the renowned postmodernist left such an indelible mark on the American literary scene, the Center considered his collection an absolutely essential entrant into its eclectic holdings.

  7. Special Collections at Yale University:

    Yale is all about the “pick your poison” model when it comes to its special collections. Art, music, oral histories, medical histories, musical instruments, Babylonian documents, government documents, legal documents, maps, theological documents, and plenty more fill the 22 libraries, one museum, and two galleries located on campus. The overarching goal of this very special collection revolves around offering up primary sources for the most accurate possible glimpse at the world’s past. For anyone looking to scope out some cuneiform, Yale just so happens to hold the most in America. Musicophiliacs might find the signed manuscripts by the likes of Bach, Brahms, Chopin, and Liszt relevant to their interests. Cartography’s fascinating history comes alive through maps from the 15th century on into the present. And so forth.

  8. Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts at University of Minnesota:

    African-American literature, Sherlock Holmes, and LGBTQIA history scholars should take a trek up Minneapolis way for impressive assemblages of important, integral research. Thanks to the Archie Givens, Sr. Collection, anyone looking to study the Harlem Renaissance, Black Arts, and other African-American writerly movements enjoy access to over 80,000 books, manuscripts, plays, short stories, essays, literary criticism, and plenty more. And the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies pays homage to one of history’s most marginalized demographics through one of the world’s most massive archives dedicated to chronicling its achievements and breakthroughs. Curiously enough for an American school, University of Minnesota actually possesses the world’s largest collection of Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle memorabilia, with over 60,000 entries. Other special collections cover Northwestern architecture, literature of the Upper Midwest, and performing arts.

  9. Lincoln Collections at Bradley University:

    America’s 16th president still enjoys quite a fandom well over a century and a half after his assassination, and Bradley University offers its adherents a chance to see the world through his eyes. Its Lincoln Collections contain 2,500 items from the former president’s life as well as the surrounding Civil War climate. Historian Martin L. Hauser himself compiled a library of 1,000 books and 300 pamphlets the famously self-educated politician would have used, painstakingly matching to the exact same edition.

  10. Eisenhower Rare Books Collection at Johns Hopkins University:

    Western lit lovers have a lot to drool over when it comes to the Eisenhower Rare Books Collection, which boasts books dating back to the Middle Ages and mainly zeroes in on the social sciences and humanities. Tudor and Stewart literature is particularly strong at Johns Hopkins and, extending the British and Irish holdings, also contains manuscripts by Oscar Wilde, Anthony Trollope, and Lord Byron. From Germany comes Goethe, Wieland, and Hine, and the American collection contains Henry James, Tom Wolfe, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Barth, and other notable names. Even though the school garners more recognition as a center for medical research, its special collections will undoubtedly make English majors drool.

  11. The Texas Collection at Baylor University:

    More than most states, Texas’ history definitely exists as a particularly colorful splotch on the American canvas. At Baylor University, this colorful splotch swells to an entire painting, with a collection of thousands of artifacts about how the Lone Star State eventually shaped itself. Bonus: Every Monday and Sunday, they host a radio show discussing some of the absolutely fascinating stories contained within the archive’s walls. Another Baylor highlight is the Armstrong Browning Library, which houses the works of beloved Victorian poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.

  12. Archives and Special Collections at Harvard University:

    Even the most fleet of scans proves just how insanely lucky the students at Harvard are when it comes to enjoying some spectacular special collections and archives. When it comes to law and legal history, the two hundred thousand books, two thousand feet of manuscripts, and seventy thousand photos, postcards, prints, artworks, and other artifacts at the department’s own library stands as one of the most impressive. For one thing, it’s amongst the largest in the world, with the majority of items in the collection focusing mainly on the history of British and American law.

  13. Special Collections at McGill University:

    McGill University in Montreal boasts a swoon-worthy special collection overflowing with enough historical, artistic, scientific, philosophical, and literary documents to erotically asphyxiate a Librarian of Congress. Love illustration? Try the Edward Gorey collection. English Literature? D.H. Lawrence and Rudyard Kipling. Irish poetry? William Butler Yeats. Puppets? Oh. There’s puppets. And ephemera from the Canadian Olympic teams. And thousands of other wonders to nurture intellectual and creative inquiry.

  14. Beinecke Lesser Antilles Special Collections at Hamilton College:

    A gift from Walter Beinecke, Jr., the Lesser Antilles Special Collections exists as the world’s largest repository of information and items regarding the Caribbean islands. Most holdings – typically maps, books, reports, letters, and paintings – hail from the 16th through the 19th centuries. Right now, the numbers currently hold steady at around 1,800 printed works and 1,000 manuscripts, all of them shedding insight into how the eight nations under the Lesser Antilles banner changed through time. Particularly while under colonial oppression and exploitation.

  15. Special Collections at Bryn Mawr:

    The second floor of Canaday Library in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania offers up two separate collections for students and scholars alike: Art and Artifacts and Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Archives. Archaeology, geology, natural history, and art buffs flock to the former, which overflows with eclectic and historical relics from ancient Greece and prehistoric Europe, as well as Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Heading over into the written archives only carries over this theme of exploration, with letters and maps and books from Polar expeditions and other travel writings. In its galleries hang pieces from John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, and Mary Cassat. Among other amazing pieces, of course.

  16. Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University:

    Jazz holds a special place in America’s heart and history, and it appropriately receives quite the love letter in New Orleans. Not just a repository of recordings and photos, the Hogan Jazz Archive housed at Tulane University provides some of the most extensive multimedia catalogs devoted to the genre anywhere. Archivists routinely provide glimpses into holdings both popular and woefully obscure right there on the site. Other special collections include the Louisiana Research Collection, Southeastern Architectural Archive, and the requisite rare books.

  17. Comic Arts Collection at Virginia Commonwealth University:

    Comics have started seeping into academic circles recently, as their unique storytelling qualities – not infrequently just as artistic as gallery-quality illustrations and just as literary as the novels read in English class (Maus won a Pulitzer, after all!) – nicely lend themselves to deeper study. One of the more unique special collections out there, housed at Virginia Commonwealth University, pays homage to the medium, with over 100,000 comic books, journals, editorial cartoons, newspaper strips, and other goods. In fact, the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, which are more or less the Oscars of the craft, keeps its own personal archives right here.

  18. Woodson Research Center Special Collections & Archives at Rice University:

    Texas history and the Civil War form the crux of the Owls’ manuscript collections, but the rare books archive shines far brighter in many ways. It contains over 32,000 works, further sorted into History of Science, Ricketts and Shannon Books, History of Aeronautics (appropriate for Houston!), 18th Century British Drama, George Cruikshank, Thorton Wilder, the Limited Editions Club, Texas History, Watermarks, and Sir William Watson. For history, art, science, and literature buffs, these pieces truly tantalize. Especially the History of Science Collection! After all, it kinda sorta recently added original copies of both Nicolaus Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium and Johannes Kepler’s Tabulae Rudolpinae to the ranks.

  19. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University:

    Duke proudly (and understandably!) boasts its special collections encompass “over 20 centuries of human history” right there on the website. Visitors have their pick of some enticing prospects, including the Archive of Documentary Arts, the Sally Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture, the History of Medicine Collections, the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History, the Human Rights Archive, and the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture. Each one hopes to serve as a means of promoting human achievement, spotlighting traditionally marginalized, overlooked, or unexpected segments. The sheer scope of the represented timeline alone astounds and impresses.

  20. Special Collections and Archives at Loyola University:

    The crowning jewel of Loyola’s collection? Obviously, John Kennedy Toole’s original manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces, which won the author a posthumous Pultizer Prize for Fiction. The Monroe Library also houses an extensive archive of items regarding the history of the Society of Jesus (also known as the Jesuits), Louisiana, and the South, as well as works by H.L. Menken and Walker Percy.