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Arts Department, Special Collections

Introductory guide to special collections in fine arts, music, photography, prints & drawings.

Hours & Contacts

We provide remote reference and in-person service.

Our reading room is open to visitors!

Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays: 
9:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.

Register as a researcher here.

  • Questions about arts collections? 
  • Need help finding resources to support your research?

Contact the Arts Department directly at

We aim to acknowledge all inquiries within 72 hours. Some responses may take up to several weeks depending on the complexity of the query. 

Library Cards

The Boston Public Library provides three types of library cards: library cards, eCards, and research cards.

Massachusetts residents can get a library card or eCard. Visitors can get a research card.

A library card is for Massachusetts residents only. It allows patrons to check out circulating materials (that you can take home), use in-library use only materials, check out eBooks, use databases remotely, and reserve museum passes.

How do I get a library card?
Come into any Boston Public Library location with 2 things: a picture ID and proof of your Massachusetts address. A Massachusetts driver’s license counts as both of these, but you can also bring in a picture ID and something else with your address, such as a bill, lease, or piece of mail.

Library cards can be made at the Circulation desk of any branch. At Central, you can make a library card in two places: the Borrower’s Services desk on the first floor of the Boylston Street Building and the Delivery Desk on the second floor of the McKim Building.


An eCard is an electronic library card. It is for Massachusetts residents only and allows patrons to use only electronic resources. Electronic resources are ones that are online, such as eBooks and databases. You cannot check out hard copy materials with an eCard. An eCard can be upgraded to a full privilege library card in person with a photo ID and proof of Massachusetts address.

How do I get an eCard?
To get an eCard, sign up using this online form. Your eCard number will be emailed to you.

A research card is for visitors who live outside of Massachusetts. It allows patrons to check out in-library use only materials, such as from the Delivery Desk, Fine Arts, and microfilm. You cannot log into a public computer with a research card, and you will need a guest pass. A guest pass can be made by library staff near the computers you need to use.

How do I get a research card?
To get a research card, come into the Central Library at Copley Square with a picture ID. You can get a research card from two desks — the Delivery Desk on the second floor of the McKim Building and the Borrower’s Services desk on the first floor of the Boylston Street Building.

Your PIN is the password that is associated with your library card. It is a 4-digit number that is set up when you get a library card. For most things, your library card number is your username and your PIN is your password.

What is a PIN used for?
You need to know your PIN for anything at the library that requires logging in, such as: logging into your library account online, using databases from home, checking out eBooks, and printing at the library. eCards also have PINs and can be used to access electronic resources, such as databases and eBooks.

While you do have to create a PIN when you make a research card, the PIN is not used for much. You will need a guest account to use the computer and print at the library.

What if I don't remember my PIN?
You can reset your PIN. Take a look at this page about resetting PINs. If you have logged into your account on our website at least once, you can reset it online. If you have not set up your online account, you can email to have it reset. You can also reset your PIN in person at any Boston Public Library location.

Getting Started


Welcome to the Arts Department!

With its renowned collection of photographs, prints, drawings, musical scores, paintings, sculpture, archives, books and manuscripts, the Arts Department supports the Boston Public Library as a center of knowledge. Spanning the 15th century to the present day, our collections offer a view into Boston and a portal to the world beyond its borders. We create opportunities for discovery and exploration of visual and musical materials by ensuring their preservation and providing multiple forms of access to these materials. We uplift current holdings and select new collections that connect to and support the dynamic needs of our users, document the history of our time, and demonstrate the relevance and value of artistic practice in society.

You Don't Know Beans, Boston Postcard Collection (ca.1911)

This guide provides introductory information for each curatorial area represented in the Arts Department: fine arts, music, photography, prints and drawings. Each curatorial page offers overviews of major collections and provides options for general and more in-depth searching within these curatorial areas. 

The Arts Department maintains card catalogs, paper finding aids, accession lists, and other inventory documents. However, many items and collections are not yet cataloged online and are primarily searchable on-site and in print form only. Researchers are encouraged to visit in person or contact the Arts Department for further information.

Objects in historical collections reflect the attitudes, ideas, and norms of the era and culture in which they were created or collected. Therefore, some images or historic descriptions may contain potentially offensive imagery, language, or opinions, including disparaging portrayals or descriptions of persons based on characteristics such as race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, or religion. Some photographs may depict ceremonies, objects, or clothing from historically marginalized cultures in a disrespectful or exploitative fashion. Our efforts to repair outdated descriptions and to describe our collections in an equitable way are iterative and ongoing. These materials are presented for the purpose of preserving the historical record and do not constitute any endorsement of the viewpoints or sentiments expressed within them.

Read our statement on Potentially Offensive and Harmful Content here.


Learn about the other collections within the Special Collections Department including

Rare Books & Manuscripts, Archives and Preservation.

Click on the image below.


Boston Public Library does not own the copyright to all of the materials in our collections. While we may provide copies of images, it is up to the user to determine if the image is in the public domain, secure permissions from the rights holder(s), or determine if the intended use may be considered exempt from copyright restrictions under the fair use section of U.S. copyright law. Further information about copyright for images is available through our image repository Digital Commonwealth

We do not apply any further licensing restrictions beyond those already asserted by the copyright holder. In order to help others locate published images, we require credit lines to include the Boston Public Library, Arts Department, as the custodial institution. 

For copyright-related questions, please e-mail