The Special Collections of the Brown University Library contain more than 3,000,000 items, well over half the library’s total resources. Holdings range from Babylonian clay tablets and Egyptian papyri to current-day books, manuscripts, and ephemera. The unifying objective for all Special Collections holdings is their potential for supporting the curricular mission of the University and the research interests of the broader community of scholars. The collections, housed primarily in the John Hay Library, include some 400,000 monographs, 1,000,000 manuscripts, 500,000 pieces of sheet music, and 60,000 each of broadsides, photographs, prints, and postage stamps, plus over 1.5 million archival files and records. Among the most notable holdings are the world’s largest collection of American poetry and plays, one of the nation’s finest history of science collections, an exceptional collection of Lincolniana, and an internationally known collection on military history. There are also important collections of incunabula, collections devoted to the writings of major individual authors, and manuscript and archival collections that offer research opportunities in a wide variety of historical and literary subjects.
The approximately 300 separate collections have been accumulated over a span of almost 250 years. They fall into two general categories: books or other research materials originally included in the library’s general collections and later isolated because of value, age, rarity, fragility, historical interest, or potential for enhancement of a special collection; and collections or individual items donated or purchased with the intention of sustaining their unique qualities or separate identities.
From the guide to the Brown University Library Special Collections files, Brown University Library Special Collections Files, circa 1932-1986, (John Hay Library Special Collections)