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Rare Books and Manuscripts Department

Collections Overview

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.

Anti-Slavery collections
Medieval manuscripts
Boston town records, 1623-1822
Womens history
Learn more about the personal library of John Adams
Explore our digitized Emily Dickinson collection
More information on our Spanish and Portuguese literature collections
More information on our Theodore Parker collection
More information on our Haitian and West Indies collection
More information on our landscape gardening and horticulture collections

Digital Collections

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.

Digital collections can be accessed through either Digital Commonwealth or Internet Archive. The same collections can also be accessed through our online catalogs and archival finding aids database.


New Acquisitions

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.

Acquisitions Gallery


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.

From page of the Anti-Slavery Collection libguide

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.

Main page from the Prince Collection libguide

The BPL's early manuscripts collection documents the development of script and illumination across six centuries, representing a major resource for the study of history and art during the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Europe. Click on the image below to see the collection guide.

Image of the BPL Medieval manuscripts libguide

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.

Main page of the Boston Tax Records libguide

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.

Main page of the BPL incunabula libguide

The personal library of President John Adams has been in the care of the BPL since 1894. Comprising over 3,000 volumes, it is also one of the largest to survive, intact, to the present day.


The Thomas Pennant Barton Collection, purchased in 1873, is the BPL's primary collection of rare, early editions of the works of William Shakespeare.

Publishing With Our Collections

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:

Contact & Reading Room Hours

Contact us!

Rare Books and Manuscript Department
Boston Public Library
700 Boylston St
Boston, MA 02116

Reading Room Hours:


  • Monday: Closed
  • Tuesday: Closed
  • Wednesday: 9:30-4:30
  • Thursday: 9:30-4:30
  • Friday: 9:30-4:30
  • Saturday- Sunday: Closed