Rare book collections

The major emphases of Special Collections’ rare book holdings are American history and literature. The collections are approximately 325,000 in number of volumes.

As Thomas Jefferson was the founder of the University of Virginia, he was also the creator of its library, selecting all of the nearly 7,000 books for it. Some of these books survived the disastrous 1895 fire in the Rotunda, and are in Special Collections today where they form a collection of particular interest because of their reflection of Jefferson’s reading habits and his thoughts concerning education. The Library has made specific efforts to acquire both books owned by Jefferson and copies of the fine arts books that he is known to have owned; of the 130 fine arts titles selected by Jefferson for the original University Library, Special Collections holds all but nineteen.

After the Library moved from its original home in the Jefferson-designed Rotunda to the Alderman Library in 1938, extensive collecting of rare books and manuscripts began, and the papers and books of many Virginia authors were acquired. The gift of the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History in the late 1930s brought to the University a magnificent collection of rare books and manuscripts, dating from the fifteenth through the late nineteenth centuries, and concentrating on Americana, accounts of travel and exploration in the Western Hemisphere, and in books that influenced thought concerning the largely unknown areas of the New World. It was, however, the gift of the world-class Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature that brought the University of Virginia to the forefront of institutions holding American literature collections. “It contains,” as Herbert Cahoon wrote for the Library’s dedication in 1960, “insofar as it has been possible to assemble them, all fiction, poetry, drama, and essays published by an American in book form [from 1775] up to and including the year 1875; for the years remaining [to 1950] it contains a very nearly complete collection of the works of every major American writer.” Books and manuscripts are added regularly to the Barrett Library through gifts and purchases using the Library’s endowed funds.

Complementing these two libraries are many collections, which, though smaller, are significant in their own right. Some of these include Lynton Massey’s William Faulkner Collection, the Sadleir-Black Gothic Novel Collection, The Douglas H. Gordon Collection of French Books, The Albert H. Small Declaration of Independence Collection, The Marion duPont Scott Sporting Collection, Paul Mellon Collection, Stone Typography Collection, and many, many others.

Nearly all rare book materials in Special Collections are accessible on VIRGO, the Library’s online catalog.