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Archives and Special Collections Library

Vassar College Rare Book Collections

African-American History and Literature

Among the rare book holdings are important titles relating to the culture of African-Americans of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Examples include a first editions of Phillis Wheatley's Poems, Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and Langston Hughes' The Weary Blues. There are also a number of special editions of late 20th century African-American writers in the collection.


American History and Literature

Items relating to American History include a first issue of the United States Constitution, political texts of the 18th and 19th centuries, and publications relating to the local history of Poughkeepsie and the Hudson River Valley. Works of early American writers are also available. A special focus of the American literature collection is modern fiction and poetry, especially as it relates to the literary circles of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Mary McCarthy, and Elizabeth Bishop, all Vassar graduates.



The library's collection of rare European and American atlases is made up largely of items donated by Loula Lasker. The 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries are well represented. Noteworthy examples of works by Ortelius, Mercator, Blaeu, Kitchin, Jefferys, Popple and others are included. In addition to the published atlases, there is a collection of rare maps.


Aucassin et Nicolette Collection

A very fine collection of 278 volumes relating to the medieval romance of Aucassin and Nicolette, including numerous editions of the work in various languages. A published bibliography is available.


Bible Collection

The Bible Collection includes medieval manuscript Bible leaves, Bible leaves and Bibles printed in the age of incunabula (before 1501), Reformation Bibles, English Bibles, especially of the 17th and 18th centuries, and modern fine press Bibles, including the 1903 Doves Press Bible and the 1935 Bruce Rogers Oxford Lectern Bible.


Book Arts of the Hudson Valley

The book arts have a long history in the Hudson Valley.  Among Vassar’s collections are records of Frederic Goudy’s Village Press (see below for more details), books on papermaking by Dard Hunter, and book illustrations of Timothy Cole.  Documentation of more recent activities in the local book arts is provided by works of the Women’s Studio Workshop, Thornwillow Press, Werner Pfeiffer, Haybarn Press, Richard Minsky, Maureen Cummins, and Ilse Schreiber-Noll.


British Literature

British Literature is one of the strengths of the rare book holdings. Books by British authors, and books published in England from the 16th century to the 20th century are present. Of special note are early editions of William Shakespeare, works of 17th, 18th, and 19th century authors, and a number of important English journals and periodicals, such as The Tatler, the Rambler, the Adventurer, and the Spectator.


Charlotte Perkins Gilman Collection

An extensive collection of the works of the noted writer, lecturer, and suffragist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, donated by Mary Schlosser, VC 1951. The collection is composed of books, anthologies, pamphlets, periodicals, and related materials. Includes the issue of New England Magazine which featured Gilman's story "The Yellow Wallpaper," and a full run of The Forerunner which she edited from 1909-1916.


Children's Books and Courtesy Books

Vassar's collection of rare children's books is extensive. The Louise Seaman Bechtel collection alone is composed of almost 3,500 children's books; English and American children's book illustrators abound, and there are many foreign editions as well. The Vassar Children's Book collection, the Elisabeth Ball collection, the Katherine Gesell Walden collection, the Clarence Lown collection and the Paula Lee Schiller Collection of Mother Goose each extend holdings in this area further. Within these collections are many examples of primers, chapbooks, and courtesy and conduct books.


Cookery and Household Books Collection

The library holds an interesting collection of books relating to cookery and household management. Nearly all of these rare works are English or American in origin, and many were published before 1800. Viewed as a whole, the collection documents important aspects of the history of domestic and social life.


Elizabeth Bishop Library

The library of 20th century poet Elizabeth Bishop is large and diverse, though most of the titles deal with some aspect of poetry or literature in general. Many of the books are signed by Bishop; a smaller number are presentation copies to her. A card catalog guides those wishing to use this collection.


Fine Printing

Throughout the rare book collection are books produced by private and fine presses. All the major English private presses of the turn of the century (Kelmscott, Doves, Ashendene, Essex House, Vale, Eragny) are represented, as are later presses such as Nonesuch, Gregynog, and Golden Cockerel.  Works of more recent English presses (Whittington, Old Stile, Red Hen) are present as well.  Early American examples of fine printing include books of the Roycroft Press, and books designed by Bruce Rogers and D.B. Updike.  There are representative holdings of private and fine presses around the country.  Massachusetts presses in the collection include the Gehenna Press, the Pennyroyal Press, and Kat Ran Press.  Printing in California is documented through books of John Henry Nash, the Grabhorn Press, the Book Club of California, and the Arion Press, among others.


Gardening and Herbals

The library possesses many rare herbals, the early botanical books that contain descriptions, and often illustrations, of herbs and plants with their properties. Of special note are several works documenting the Botanical Renaissance of the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe. A number of books on agriculture and gardening are also available; most were produced in England, France or America between 1700 and 1850.


Grille Collection

For many years rare books in the Vassar College library were housed behind grilled cages, and were identified as "Grille" books. Today, nearly all of the rare books are given this designation, though the original provenance of particular collections and items is retained.


Helen Wright Collection of Autographed Books

This collection consists of approximately 650 books by English and American authors such as Rudyard Kipling, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, and others. There are works of fiction, biography, essays, travel and art. Each book was autographed especially for Helen Wright (a prepatory student at Vassar in 1877-78, and later a member of the staff of the Library of Congress) and many contain personal inscriptions to her.


Henry Justice Collection on the Periodical Press

The Justice collection numbers nearly 3,000 titles, and includes books, pamphlets, newspapers and other materials. Much of the collection deals with the history of the periodical press and legal aspects of the press both in America and Europe. There are many editions of the 18th century English political author Junius.



Archives and Special Collections possesses more than 40 books printed in Europe before 1500. These examples of incunabula were printed in cities that are now part of Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and France. In addition to the books, there is also a sizeable collection of leaves taken from incunabula, including several leaves from Johann Gutenberg's 42-line Bible.


Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev Library

The library of the Russian writer Turgenev is a gift of the Class of 1882, and was presented to the college in 1910. It consists of several hundred books, each containing Turgenev's bookplate, and some with inscriptions. The books are in a variety of languages, and mainly concern literature and political history. A typed listing is available.


Jean Webster Library

The library of Jean Webster, a graduate of Vassar College and an early 20th century writer, is composed primarily of fiction, drama, poetry, and works relating to the craft of writing. Within this library is a collection of books written by Webster, including several foreign editions.


John Burroughs Library

About 100 books once owned by the local naturalist and writer John Burroughs form this collection. Many of the titles deal with natural history or literature. Annotated copies of works by Henri Bergson and Henry David Thoreau are included, as are works of Walt Whitman, Upton Sinclair and Theodore Roosevelt that were inscribed by the author to Burroughs.


Mary Ann Collection of Books about Dogs

This collection was named in honor of Vassar historian Lucy Maynard Salmon's dog, Mary Ann. It includes biographies, tributes, and tales of dogs that have been commemorated in literature. Of special note are editions of John Muir's Stickeen, Matthew Vassar's Life of Poor Tip, and Katherine Lee Bates' Sigurd, Our Golden Collie.


Mary McCarthy Library

Books owned by the 20th century critic and novelist Mary McCarthy make up this collection. Many of the books were written by American and English literary figures, such as James Merrill, Robert Lowell, and Joyce Carol Oates, and inscribed to McCarthy. There are also a number of books that deal with some aspect of the Vietnam War.


Matthew Vassar Library

The founder of Vassar College, Matthew Vassar, gave his library to the institution that bears his name. Nearly all of these books date from the early and middle years of the 19th century. The collection has great variety; here one will find titles dealing with history, religion, literature, politics, gardening and other subjects.


Mitchell Kennerley Collection

This collection is made up of about 300 books published by Mitchell Kennerley during the early twentieth century; arranged chronologically, it features the first books of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Joseph Hergesheimer, Walter Lippmann, and others. Volumes of The Reader and The Forum, each edited by Kennerley for a time, are also included. In addition, there are examples of American fine printing dating from the turn of the last century.


Natural History Collection

There are many valuable materials in Special Collections relating to Natural History. Perhaps the most prized possession is a complete set of the Audubon double elephant folios. Complementing these magnificent volumes are other books relating to birds, by Thomas Bewick, John Gould, Alexander Wilson, and others. There are several 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th century books relating to other aspects of natural history. The library also holds a collection of first editions of W.H. Hudson, and more recent titles relating to birds, animals, and nature.


Robert Owen Collection

The Owen collection is an outstanding group of books, pamphlets and periodicals by and about Robert Owen, the utopian socialist. It consists of approximately 300 items, including many first editions of works by Owen.


Thornwillow Press

The library serves as a repository for Thornwillow Press, a publisher of handcrafted limited edition books by authors such as John Updike, James Merrill, Arthur Schlesinger, and others. Founded by Luke Ives Pontifell in 1985, the press in recent years has been operating out of Newburgh, NY. Nearly all titles are available.


Travel Literature Collection

The Travel Literature collection is made up of guidebooks, diaries, essays, and other works relating to journeys in foreign lands. Individual titles deal with a variety of countries and places, but there is a special emphasis on Europe, England, and the United States. Most books date from the 18th and 19th centuries.


Vassar College Alumnae/i Collection

Authors who attended Vassar College are represented in this collection. Individual titles are arranged chronologically by the year of the author's class, and treat a wide range of subjects. The collection documents the literary accomplishments of alumnae/i from the 19th century to the present. To locate titles, use the Advanced Keyword Search option in the online catalog then narrow the location to Archives/SpecColl (Alum).


Vassar College Faculty Collection

This collection consists of books written by Vassar faculty. It extends from the nineteenth century to the present, but the bulk of the titles date from the early 20th century. To locate titles, use the Advanced Keyword Search option in the online catalog then narrow the location to Archives/SpecColl (Fac Coll). See also the Vassar College Faculty Reprint Collection.


Vassar College Theses

This collection consists mostly of senior theses but also includes some master's theses. The theses have basic catalog records which are searchable in the online catalog. There are special policies governing the use of the theses. An explanation of these policies is available on our Policies and Procedures web page. Born-digital theses are available via the Vassar Scholarship Repository.



The Vassariana Collection is made up of published items produced by, or relating to, Vassar College. The collection is notable not only for official publications, such as the school catalog, but also for titles produced by various offices and organizations on campus. The Vassariana Collection is one of the largest in Special Collections. An online list of particularly useful Vassar-related materials in the Library as well as online is also available.


Village Press Collection

The Village Press was founded by the famous type-designer Frederic W. Goudy. This is the third largest Village Press collection in the country. It is composed largely of works previously owned by the publisher Mitchell Kennerley. The collection includes books, pamphlets, broadsides, and a variety of other materials relating to the press and its founder.


Whittaker Family - Charles Dickens Collection

This is an extensive collection of Dickensiana, composed of first and later editions of the author's novels, readings, dramatizations, and other works. In addition to original works, there are many critical studies of Dickens, Cruikshank, and Victorian life in general. See also the Whittaker Family - Charles Dickens Manuscript Collection, which includes letters, speeches, broadsides, playbills and other collectible items relating to Dickens, as well as original drawings by Hablot Knight Browne, George Cruikshank, and others.


William Bronk Collection

A collection of books, contributions to journals, and manuscripts relating to William Bronk, the critically-acclaimed poet who won the National Book Award in 1982 and for many years lived in Hudson Falls, NY. A number of the books are limited editions, printed by the Elizabeth Press, and some are signed by Bronk.


Women's History and Literature

For over one hundred years Vassar College operated as a college for women, and the library naturally developed strong holdings relating to women. Alma Lutz, an alumna of Vassar, donated many rare books in this category to Special Collections. Examples include works by Hannah Adams, Lydia Child, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sarah Josepha Hale, Frances Anne Kemble, Hannah More, Emma Willard, Mary Wollstonecraft, and others. The Lutz gift also features many 19th and early 20th century pamphlets relating to women. Moreover, the library holds a number of periodicals from the same time period that are useful to the study of women's history.


Women's Studio Workshop Collection

The Women's Studio Workshop in Rosendale, New York is the country's largest producer of hand printed artists' books. Through the workshop, women artists have created over 150 books since 1979. The Archives & Special Collections Library serves as a repository for these books, and is in the process of acquiring all of them. The collection reflects a wide range of subject matter and aesthetic sensibilities.



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