Rare Books 101

So, what are rare books exactly? Your first thought might be something like this:


Handsome, leather bound volumes that look old and valuable. To be sure, we’ve got a lot of books that look like this in Special Collections & Archives. Our rare books collections cover the spectrum, starting with the origins: fragments of papyrus and cuneiform tablets that represent the beginning of written history. There are medieval manuscripts written by hand on vellum, ranging in size from a tiny fragment from a hand-held Book of Hours to massive antiphonals used by monks for chanting prayers. Following the advent of printing in the Western world in the mid-15th century, we have a page from the Gutenberg Bible and several incunabula (books printed in the first half-century after the invention of movable type). Our holdings from sixteenth through early-nineteenth centuries offer researchers countless examples of books from the hand-press era, when every book was essentially an individual work of craftsmanship.

But sometimes, rare books look like this:


Some books are mass-produced works of popular culture. And these books are important too! For the savvy researcher, any of the rare books in our collections can tell a story about the time period and culture in which they were created. These books are important for the works of literature, history, art, philosophy, and science that they contain and also for their value as cultural objects. Our mission here at Special Collections & Archives is to preserve these books and to provide access to them, whether through our digital library or in-person at our research center on the first floor of Strozier Library. Some collection highlights include:

  • Works on Napoleon & the French Revolution
  • The John M. Shaw Collection of Childhood in Poetry
  • The Carothers Memorial Rare Bibles Collection
  • A complete run of the Kelmscott Press
  • The Gontarski Grove Press Collection
  • Artists’ Books
  • The McGregor Collection on the Discovery and Exploration of the Americas
  • The Louise Richardson Herbals Collection
  • Fore-edge paintings
  • Florida history

The materials in our rare books collections can be found by searching the online catalog and limiting the location to “Strozier, Special Collections”. If you are interested in using our rare books collections for your next research project but aren’t sure where to start, or if you are a faculty member interested in having an instruction session with rare books, please contact me, Katherine Hoarn, Visiting Rare Book and Instruction Librarian, at khoarn@fsu.edu for more information.

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