Overview of Printed Books, Manuscripts, and Reference Collections in Special Collections

Printed Books

The major emphasis in the Spencer Research Library's printed books holdings is on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Great Britain, and twentieth-century America; however, other times and places are often extensively represented, especially in the general rare books collection. Over twenty-two thousand titles strong, this is the basic workhorse collection, the repository of all departmental holdings which do not fall into one of the separate "named" collections (for separate named collections, please see the list of collecting areas on the main Special Collections page). It includes most of our sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English books, many eighteenth-century English, Continental, and American imprints, most of our nineteenth-century imprints, and a good deal of our modern literature. It is strong in botany, voyages and travels, typography, eighteenth-century French history, nineteenth- and twentieth- century English literature, English history, and economics; beyond that it includes lesser holdings on a multitude of subjects.

It is difficult to choose examples from such a varied collection but perhaps a few will serve to highlight the diversity: a collection of the works of Mark Twain (mainly the gift of the late Milton F. Barlow); Diderot's Encyclopedie; The Constitution of the State of Deseret, Kanesville, 1849; Stuart and Revett's The Antiquities of Athens, London, 1762-1816; a good Kierkegaard collection; Samuel Johnson's Plan of a Dictionary, London, 1747 (as also the first and other editions of the dictionary itself); some five hundred 19th century "yellowbacks"; Bracton's De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae, London, 1569, and a great many other notable books in the history of Anglo-American law; a strong Whitman collection; Montesquieu's De l'Esprit des Loix, Geneva, 1748; a small slavery collection--much of this drawn from the John Crerar Library social sciences collection, acquired by the Library in 1954; collections of A. A. Milne and Christopher Morley (the gifts of Elizabeth M. Snyder); Moxon's Mechanick Exercises, London, 1694; and a good many works of Dickens, many of them (including, appropriately, Master Humphrey's Clock) in the original parts.


The department contains around 500,000 items (some in named collections, some independent) from the antiquity to the present. The major regions covered are Britain, Europe, Latin America (to a lesser degree), and the U.S. (primarily for some minor literary genres). A few items fall outside these subject/time/locality boundaries. The Department does not collect "high spots" (most of our medieval manuscripts, for instance, are not illuminated), but looks primarily for historical/textual value to future researchers. Most of our manuscripts are unpublished, and many deal with obscure people. We have few literary texts except in our Science Fiction and New American Poetry collections (but many letters of literary people), and little Americana.

Samples of broad subject areas, with some illustrative collections, include:

  • British family papers (letters, legal documents, financial accounts, diaries, etc.), largely 1600-1900
  • British government, politics, and foreign relations, seventeenth to nineteenth century
  • Several thousand miscellaneous British deeds, fourteenth to nineteenth century
  • Correspondence of British literary/theatrical/artistic groups, nineteenth to twentieth century (e.g., the Pre-Raphaelites)
  • Archives of science fiction writers; partial archives of a few twentieth century U.S./British little magazines
  • Italian historical/political/economic texts and governmental correspondence, fourteenth to seventeenth century
  • Spanish and Portuguese politics, seventeenth to nineteenth century (e.g., letter-books of the Viceroy of Catalonia, 1691-1693)
  • Over 400 medieval texts of varied types
  • Latin-American politics, sixteenth to twentieth century (e.g., the Natalicio González collection of historical, political, and economic material concerning Paraguay)
  • Travel diaries
  • Ornithology (e.g., a small collection of Japanese falconry handbooks; a large collection of John Gould natural history drawings, Australia and England, nineteenth century)
  • Neurology
  • Farming records, sixteenth to nineteenth century, Britain and Italy
  • Technology (e.g., maps of waterway improvements in Austria, 1823; books of household receipts)

Online finding aids for a portion of the library's archival and manuscript collections are available. While the library is working to create online finding aids for all of its manuscript collections, inventory information for some collections is limited to paper guides housed in the library's reading room and in its manuscript card catalog. Please consult both the online finding aids and paper guides when searching for manuscript collections.

Reference Volumes

The reading room contains a small collection of reference volumes that support the subjects in which the department specializes. Additional reference titles can be found in the Spencer Research Library's general collections. These include bibliographies, catalogs, works on the history of the book, paleography, manuscript studies, diplomatics, and the history of cartography. All reference volumes may be located by searching the KU Library Catalog.