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Rare Book and Special Collections Division

Rosemary Fry Plakas and Jacqueline Coleburn*

arrow graphicINTRODUCTION






I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits,
A Poets pen all scorn I should thus wrong,
For such despite they cast on Female wits:
If what I do prove well, it won't advance,
They'l say it's stoln, or else it was by chance

—Anne Bradstreet, 16781

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History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution. Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814). Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

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This gentle protest against indiscriminate condemnation of women's writings was penned by Anne Bradstreet (1613-1672), the first woman poet to be published in colonial America. Bradstreet received praise and approval from her male contemporaries, including influential clergyman Cotton Mather, and her poems on a variety of subjects, sacred and secular, were published in London in 1650 by a kinsman. They were subsequently published posthumously in an expanded compilation in Boston in 1678.

Both in her breadth of subjects—her poems addressed not only home and family, but nature, history, philosophy, and religion—and in her sensitivity to prejudices against women's writings, Bradstreet is a worthy pathfinder for the women who have followed her.

Mr. Jefferson's Library

The Rare Book and Special Collections Division reflects the eclectic interests of its premier patron, Thomas Jefferson, his unrelenting passion for learning, and his belief that the unrestricted pursuit of knowledge is crucial to the continuing health of the nation. After the British burned the Capitol and the congressional library in 1814, Jefferson offered to sell his book collection to Congress. Jefferson's great library of books in several languages and covering an amazing variety of subjects became the foundation for the new Library of Congress in 1815 and today is the cornerstone of the Library's rare collections. Jefferson sought out the writings of several American and English women. While president he subscribed to Mercy Otis Warren's History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (Boston: Manning and Loring, 1805; E208.W29 Jefferson) for himself and his cabinet. He owned a volume of Warren's poems, as well as a volume by Phillis Wheatley. Jefferson also acquired Catherine Macaulay's History of England, Lady Mary Chudleigh's essays on ethics, and Jane Marcet's Conversations on Chemistry. And he owned a 1632 compilation on English laws relating to women and a 1742 copy of Mary Eales's Compleat Confectioner, as well as novels by Eliza Haywood, Mary Manley, Teresia Phillips, and Anne Germaine, Baronne de Staël-Holstein.

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The Lawes Resolutions of Women's Right. Attributed to Sir John Dodderidge (1555-1625). London: John More, Esq., 1632. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

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The Library did not create a separate Rare Book and Special Collections Division until 1934 when the division moved into its present reading room and stack area, but the institution had been actively seeking out collections of rare materials since the visionary Ainsworth Rand Spofford was Librarian of Congress (1864-97). The purchase of the private library of Peter Force in 1867, as well as gifts from major donors, notably the medical library of Joseph Meredith Toner in 1882, strengthened its rare Americana holdings, including sources related to the history of women in the United States.

Today the division's collections number nearly eight hundred thousand books, broadsides, pamphlets, theater playbills, title pages, prints, posters, photographs, and medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. The division's materials have come into its custody for a variety of reasons, including their importance in the history of printing, monetary value, association interest, binding, fragility, or need for security. Most Library holdings printed in the Roman alphabet before 1800 are found here, including nearly half of all such printing in what is now the United States.

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Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety of Wit and Learning... Anne Bradstreet (1613-1672). Boston: John Foster, 1678. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

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As its name suggests, the division's holdings are organized in two ways. The Rare Book Classified Collection is a microcosm of the General Collections, arranged by the same subject classifications and including books, pamphlets, and serials acquired by transfer, gift, and purchase, on all subjects and concerning all time periods. Special Collections include well over one hundred separate collections created either by the donor or by Library staff and tend to have a specific subject or format focus. Both arrangements are strong in Americana and offer rich sources for the study of the contributions and impact of women as participants in American history and culture.

Major subject strengths include women's suffrage, women's contributions to various nineteenth-century social reform movements, and selected literary works by women. These strengths were developed over time through a combination of factors including generous gifts of participants like Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt, gifts by collectors like Katherine Bitting and Marian S. Carson, and ongoing acquisition through copyright deposit and purchase.

Where the books are

Readers at the Library of Congress are often surprised when their call slips are returned to them in the Main Reading Room and they are told to request the item in question in the Rare Book Reading Room. Why is a certain 1867 pamphlet advocating women's suffrage in the rare book collections while so many similar nineteenth-century publications are accessible in the General Collections? Out of all of the editions and copies of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, why are some of them considered rare books while others are readily available from the Main Reading Room? Why on earth is Sex by Madonna in a rare book room?

Most of the books kept in the rare book vault are truly rare and need special housing and protection because of their historical and literary significance and monetary value. Some are valued as artifacts as much, if not more than, for the information they contain. Others are part of a special collection that needs to be kept whole.

Often a book's presence in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division has to do with how the Library acquired it. For instance, Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947), the suffragist leader in command during the last charge for women's suffrage, donated the reference library of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to the Library in 1938. The collection, including copies of the suffrage pamphlet and Wollstonecraft's Vindication is kept together because of its historically important provenance and because of its relevance to American scholarship, hinging as much on its existence as NAWSA's library as it does on the individual books the library contains.

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Susan B. Anthony, 1900. Frances Benjamin Johnston, photographer. Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USZ62-8760 (b&w film copy neg.)

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Another copy of Vindication (Boston: Peter Edes, 1792; HQ1596.W6 1792a Anthony) is in the Susan B. Anthony Collection, her gift to the Library in 1903. The significance of this first American edition is enhanced by its provenance and particularly its inscription from Anthony, “a great admirer of this earliest word for woman's Right to Equality of rights ever penned by a woman. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘A wholesome discontent is the first step toward progress.’ And here in 1892[sic], we have the first step—so thinks Susan B. Anthony.”

Anthony had serialized the Vindication in her newspaper the Revolution, hung Wollstonecraft's picture on the wall of her Rochester home, and invoked Wollstonecraft's memory in her last suffrage speech in 1906. These acts and the sentiments of the inscription all point to the place of honor held in Anthony's heart by this early champion of feminist ideology.

Sex by Madonna (New York: Warner Books, 1992; ML420.M1387 A3 1992) is indeed in the rare book vault. The Library collects books and other formats that document our culture, whether it be folk, popular, or elite. The Library's copies of Sex are the sort of material that is at high risk for theft or mutilation.

Also, the division collects and preserves in their original condition the first editions of many contemporary American women writers, including Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, Louise Erdrich, Louise Gluck, Maxine Kumin, Joyce Carol Oates, Sonia Sanchez, and Alice Walker.

A reader interested in the literary content of a work should request it in the Main Reading Room and receive a General Collections copy, which will probably arrive in a sturdy library binding with the call number embossed on the cover and fitted with a bar code. If you need to see the book as it was first presented to the public for sale, you should go to the Rare Book Reading Room, which is equipped to handle fragile material, and request the Rare Book copy. In most cases, you will receive a book that is relatively untouched, in its original dust jacket, as it would have been issued from the publisher.

*Authored the original chapter in American Women: A Library of Congress Guide for the Study of Women's History and Culture in the United States (Library of Congress, 2001), from which this online version is derived. Others who contributed to this effort are identified in the Acknowledgments.

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