Collections in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department bring together source materials from around the world, with a particular focus on the history of Boston and New England.
Areas of strength in our collections include American and British civilization; Spanish and Portuguese literature; 19th-century American abolitionism, and early European printed books and manuscripts, among many others.
Digitization of collections is a major part of what we do. Our staff facilitates digitization in order to increase the reach and accessibility of our collections. We work with the BPL Digital Services Team and with imaging and conservation partners around the Greater Boston Area.
BPL digital collections are freely available online, constantly expanding, and in the public domain unless stated otherwise.
We are always engaged in the work of building our collections. New materials are acquired via purchase and through donations. While acquisition priorities can change over time, we generally seek to both build on existing strengths and to address gaps.
The gallery below contains a selection of the Department's recent acquisitions. Click on each image for further details and links.
Some of our collections are more complicated to navigate than others. Collection guides can help. These guides contain useful info, including broad overviews and histories of specific collections, detailed descriptions of contents, suggestions for how to find material, and more.
To view guides from Rare Books and Manuscripts Department collections, click through the tabs, above.
The Boston Public Library's Anti-Slavery Collection represents one of the largest institutional holdings of special collections materials related to 19th-century American abolition movements. Many leading anti-slavery activists of the period had ties to New England and women played notable, visible roles within the movement as organizers, fundraisers, and advocates. Click on the image below to see the collection guide.
The Thomas Prince Collection and Library of the Old South Church -- usually just referred to as the Prince Collection -- is a group of approximately 3,500 books and 950 manuscripts assembled primarily by Old South pastors Thomas Prince (1687-1758) and Joseph Sewall (1688-1769). Click on the image below to see the collection guide.
The BPL Rare Books and Manuscripts Department holds a comprehensive collection of early Boston tax records. Dating from 1780 through 1821 and comprising more than 1,350 individual manuscripts, the collection represents a rich source of data, preserving intimate and often unique details about the character of Boston and its early residents. Click on the image below to see the collection guide.
The BPL's Incunabula Collection contains hundreds of books, documenting the emergence and spread of typographical printing in Europe during 15th century. Click on the image below to see the collection guide.
In most cases, the Boston Public Library does not hold the copyright to the items in our collections. Furthermore, we do not assert any additional restrictions on copies of these items beyond those that might exist in the original. As such, we cannot grant or deny permission to use copies of these items. It is the sole responsibility of the user to make their own determination about what types of usage might be permissible under U.S. and international copyright law.
If the material you are working with is in the public domain, you do not require our permission to publish; you are free to use the images in any way that you would like, including in print. For digitized collections, high resolution images may be downloaded from Digital Commonwealth or the Internet Archive. If you need images from material that has not been digitized, contact our staff to see if we are able to provide any images. Future researchers may find it most helpful if you include Boston Public Library and the call number of the item you are using in your citation (for example: Boston Public Library. MS q Med.105). If you need further assistance, we're happy to help.
For material that is still in copyright, you will need to contact the copyright holders. For manuscripts, you may wish to contact us to check if we have any donor information. Other helpful resources in locating copyright holders include: