The Rare Collections of the State Library of Pennsylvania are comprised of six groups: (1) The Assembly Collection, (2) The Pennsylvania Imprint Collection, (3) The Rare Collection, (4) The Pamphlet Collection, (5) The Rare Newspapers Collection, (6) The “Transitionally” Rare Collection, and (7) The Pennsylvania Graphica Collection.
The core of the State Library’s Rare Collections Library is the Original Assembly Collection, numbers over 400 extant volumes. These books were purchased by the Pennsylvania Assembly, beginning in 1745 for the legislators’ reference in governing the Commonwealth. This collection contains primarily law books, but also dictionaries, books on architecture, philosophy, history and religion.
The Pennsylvania Imprints Collection
The Pennsylvania Imprints are rare books published by presses in Pennsylvania cities large and small, between 1685 and 1865. These imprints include: (1) religious tracts, works of piety and sermons, (2) almanacs, (3) political tracts and legislative proceedings, (4) reports of social welfare, abolitionist, women’s suffrage and other societies , (5) works of history and geography, especially school textbooks, and (6) juvenile books.
This rich collection is a treasure trove of rare publications on the political, socio-economic, cultural and religious history of the Commonwealth. The Pennsylvania Imprints include a variety of religious publications, ranging from late 17th century works by Quaker dissident George Keith, such as Presbyterian and independent visible churches in New England and elsewhere, brought to the test, and examined according to the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures (1689), to a local account of the Great Awakening in Pastor Samuel Blair’s Short and faithful narrative of the late remarkable revival of religion in the congregation of New-Londonderry, and other parts of Pennsylvania (1744).
The almanac collection within the Pennsylvania Imprints includes editions of Benjamin Franklin’s famous Poor Richard’s Almanac, but also lesser known titles such as Christopher Saur’s Hoch-deutsch americanische Calendar, published in Germantown.
Political tracts, legislative and judicial proceedings in this collection include a pamphlet published by William Bradford with Remarks on the late proceedings of some members of the Assembly at Philadelphia: April, 1728, as well as glimpses of politics in the early Republic. Some of these are General Joseph Reed’s Remarks on a late publication in the Independent Gazetter; with a short address to the people of Pennsylvania on many libels and slanders which have lately appeared against the author (1783), William Cobbett’s 1796 Prospect from the Congress-gallery during the session begun December 7, 1795. Containing the President’s speech, the addresses of both houses, some of the debates of the Senate, and all the principal debates of the House of Representatives, and Thaddeus Stevens’ Free-masonry unmasked (1835).
Another rich collection within the Pennsylvania Imprints are the reports of Pennsylvania social welfare societies, addressing a range of contemporary issues, including slavery, women’s suffrage, and the treatment of the insane. Several titles in this collection that date from the decade of the 1820s are the Constitution and act of incorporation of the Pennsylvania society for promoting the abolition of slavery (1820), an Abstract of a journal kept by E. Bacon, United States assistant agent for the reception of recaptured negroes on the western coast of Africa. Containing an account of the first negotiations for the purchase of lands for the American colony (1824), and An account of the asylum for the insane: established by the Society of Friends, near Frankford, in the vicinity of Philadelphia (1825).
The Pennsylvania Imprints collection also contains published lectures, school text books in history, geography and literature, as well as other writings by educators. Early 19th century examples include Pinkerton’s geography, epitomised, for use in schools (1805), a Philadelphia edition of the Reliques of Robert Burns. . . . Collected and published by R.H. Cromek (1809), Benjamin Rush’s Sixteen introductory lectures to courses of lectures upon the institutes and practice of medicine, with a syllabus of the latter (1811) and the Memoirs of the life of Anthony Benezet, edited by Roberts Vaux (1817).
Finally, the Pennsylvania Imprints also include juvenile books such as the German ballad Die Kinder im Wald, published by Benjamin Mayer in Ephrata in 1797 and a moral tale entitled Little Nancy, or The punishment of greediness published in Philadelphia by Morgan & Yeager circa 1824.
The Rare Collection
The State Library’s large Rare Collection includes a wide variety of non-Pennsylvania imprints, dating from the incunabula period of the 15thcentury through the 20th century. The earliest volume in the collection is Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg chronicle (Liber chronicarum) (1493). This varied Rare Collection—much of it published by European presses—ranges from William Penn’s plea for religious toleration, Christian liberty as it was soberly desired in a letter to certain forreign states upon occasion of their late severity of their inhabitants, merely for their different perswasion and practice in point of faith and worship towards God (London, 1675), and George Whitfield’s pamphlet on The enthusiasm of Methodists and papists compar’d (1749) to Louis Agassiz’s Contributions to the natural history of the United States of America (1857).
The Pamphlet Collection
Another important rare collection, especially valuable for the study of Pennsylvania’s social and intellectual history in the 19th and 20th centuries, is the Pamphlet Collection of some four thousand volumes, roughly half of which have been cataloged. Examples from this important rare resource include Dorothea Dix’s Memorial soliciting a state hospital for the insane (1845), A report of the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States and the judges thereof , in the case of Dred Scott versus John F.A. Sanford (1857), and an Address upon the late Joseph Leidy, a eulogy (the famous University of Pennsylvania paleontologist) offered by William Hunt (1892).
The Rare Newspapers Collection
Another significant collection within the Rare Collections Library is the Pennsylvania Newspapers Collection. The State Library has one of the largest collections of Pennsylvania newspapers, beginning with Andrew Bradford’s American Weekly-Mercury (1719), the first newspaper published in the Middle Colonies. Among its newspaper holdings are original copies of Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette with a description of Franklin’s famous kite and key experiment in the January 14, 1752 issue. July, 1861 issues of the Philadelphia Press provide coverage of the First Battle of Bull Run, while 1898 issues of the Bethlehem Times chronicle the actions of the Spanish-American War. Original copies of Pennsylvania newspapers can be examined by appointment in the Rare Collections reading room.
Microfilmed copies of Pennsylvania newspapers are available in the Library’s Main reading room, or via interlibrary loan. Digitized Pennsylvania newspapers are also available on the World Wide Web from the Library of Congress website Chronicling America.
The Transitionally Rare Books
Since the State Library of Pennsylvania is over 250 years old, rare books and materials are continually being discovered in its closed stacks. Among the collections recently discovered that fall into the category of “transitionally rare,” are Scrapbooks of Newspaper Clippings Concerning Pennsylvania’s Participation in the Civil War, Scrapbooks of Newspaper Clippings on the United States Sanitary Commission, a large collection of pamphlets and printed materials (the most complete in existence) from the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and an extensive collection of World War One materials, including printed books, pamphlets, records and government documents.
The Pennsylvania Graphica Collection
The State Library’s Pennsylvania Graphica Collection currently focuses on the graphic art of Steve Ditko of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the co-creator of the Marvel Comics super hero Spider-Man. The Pennsylvania Graphica Collection includes the unpublished artwork for Ditko’s Alien, the Amazing Fantasy #15, which introduces the character of Spider-Man, and Do You Believe in Nightmares (St. John Publishing, November, 1959). Transitionally rare items in the collection include reference works on Will Eisner’s artistic techniques, as well as writings by B. Randall Scott of Michigan State University on Comics Librarianship.
Research Access - Using The Rare Collections Library
Researchers who wish to use the Rare Collections Library will first want to consult our online catalog to determine our holdings. Often we have microfilm or microfiche copies of rare materials that can be consulted with greater ease than the originals. The State Library also continues to upload digital copies of materials to the Access Pennsylvania Digital Repository.
Our Rare Collections Library catalog can be searched, apart from the rest of the State Library's catalog, by setting a search limit (either the "Single Search Limit" button below where search terms are entered, or - for repeated searches - using the "Search Limits" button at the lower right of the screen) to the location "State Library - Rare Books".
All research using our rare collections is done by appointment only. There are currently no evening or weekend appointments available. Please consult these pages for the hours for the library, as well as directions to the building and suggestions for parking.
Researchers will need to obtain State Library of Pennsylvania library cards in the Main Reading Room before coming to the Rare Collections Library. The reference librarians, in the Main Reading Room, can help you get started with your research or the use of microfilm copies of materials.
In order to reduce barriers to the dissemination of research conducted in its collections, the Rare Collections Library (RCL) will ordinarily not set conditions on publication of materials from its collections in connection with scholarship.