Our special collections reveal the history of the reading tastes of library patrons since 1753. We have rare first editions of Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Louisa May Alcott, among others, and our expansive Travel and Exploration collection includes Ptolemy’s Cosmographia (1482) and the Description de l’Egypte (1809-1822), commissioned by Napoleon.
Our “Old Juveniles” collection has over 3,000 children’s novels and illustrated books from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We also own two medieval manuscripts, eight incunabula (books printed before 1501), a variety of 19th century pamphlets, a collection of Robert Burns, and a wide range of natural history books.
We welcome researchers and visitors to come and explore our special collections. Exhibitions from these
collections can be viewed in the Philbrick rare book room. Appointments are necessary for consultation
of the special collections. Please call 401-421-6970 or email Kate Wodehouse at:
Over 12,000 of our rare book titles can be searched in the online catalog.
I. Founder’s Collection: Much of the Providence Library Company’s (1753-1836) original collection of 345 volumes was lost during a disastrous fire on Christmas Eve, 1758. However, 70 volumes on loan at the time survived the fire and a majority of these remain in the collection. (Click here for a full list).
As a body, this collection offers unique and valuable insights into the formation of a publicly accessible library in the mid-18th century. There is supporting material in the archives.
II. Archives: The archives contain institutional records dating to the foundation of the Providence Library Company in 1753, records pertaining to the historic building, old library catalogues and publications by and about the library. There are also extensive collections of photographs and ephemera relating to the library.
III. Holder Borden Bowen Collection: This collection comprises about 2,000 volumes donated to the Athenaeum by Holder Borden Bowen in 1912. The collection is rich in folklore, memoirs, 17th and 18th century travel and exploration, and many examples of fine printing and binding. The collection also includes books on topics such as dueling, wine, and card playing. To read more about Bowen and his collection, Click Here.
IV. Pamphlet Collection: The varied pamphlet collection dates primarily to the 19th century and includes anti-slavery and temperance tracts, Civil War items, materials related to the Indian Rights Association of Philadelphia, and many others topics such as early shipwrecks, funeral orations, feminism, local and state organizations, etc. The collection has yet to be fully catalogued.
V. Smithsonian Institution Publications: At one time the Athenaeum was a depository library for the United States Government Printing Office. Consequently the library has numerous (and as yet uncataloged) materials from this office related to westward explorations, geological and geodetic surveys, ethnographic studies, coastal surveys and boundary determinations.
VI. Old Juveniles: This collection numbers nearly 3000 and includes many early classics from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. British and American artists are well-represented. The collection contains both children’s novels and illustrated books.
VII. Old Fiction: This collection includes rare editions of books by famous authors including Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and Louisa May Alcott.
There are also many works printed in Providence and Boston in the 19th century and a large collection of women writers from the same period. There are many thousand titles in the collection and most are accessible via the on-line catalogue.
VIII. Costume Collection: Comprising about 200 volumes, the costume collection contains primarily 19th and 20th century works on European costume design.
IX. Roycroft Collection: There are approximately 300 items from the press of the Roycrofters that flourished in East Aurora, NY from roughly 1895 to 1915. The Roycroft design was inspired by a mix of commercial interest and the arts-and crafts movement.
X. Travel and Exploration: The travel and exploration collection contains c.2500 titles ranging from Ptolemy’s Cosmographia (1482), to the Description de l’Egypte (1809-1822) commissioned by Napoleon, to early 20th century tour guides. The collection is particularly strong in 18th and 19th century works.
XI. Natural History Collection: There are many important scientific works in the collection ranging from ornithology to horticulture to the physical sciences. A printed catalogue specifically on the natural history collections is available for sale.
XII. Robert Burns: Presented to the Athenaeum in 1920, the Burns collection numbers some 450 volumes. Among the early editions in the collection are the first Edinburgh, the first London and the second American, as well as several early imprints of individual poems and songs. There are also bibliographies and miscellaneous literature relating to Burns.
XIII. Book Arts: The library has many books that are notable for their excellence of design. There are examples of the development of books from the middle ages to the modern day. The library owns two medieval manuscripts and eight incunabula (books printed before 1501) that are part of the book arts collection.
The strength of this collection includes examples by American book cloth designers such as Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842-1904), who designed book covers in Boston for Houghton Mifflin in the late 19th century.