Collection Highlights

Learn more about selected collections below or search the entire rare book collections using the search box.

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Eric Gill (1882-1940) was an English sculptor, calligrapher, engraver, and writer, but he is perhaps best known as a designer of typefaces, including the famous Gill Sans. Acquired in 2005, this collection documents Gill’s interests and activities over the course of his lifetime and includes books, drawings, hand-lettered alphabets, woodblocks, proof pages, and correspondence. Scarce and ephemeral items such as issues of The Game, a homey periodical produced by the community of craftworkers co-founded by Gill, provide insight into the combination of practicality and pirituality that governed the artist’s life and work.

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The library and autograph collection of St. Louis collector George N. Meissner came to the University in 1962 as a gift from his family, along with funds for the construction of Special Collections’ original reading room and storage space. While part of Meissner’s collection can be found in the manuscript unit, its roughly 2,000 volumes are held in the rare book collections. They represent fine books from the 15th century to the present, including early illuminated manuscripts and incunabula. One of the collection’s most notable volumes is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s copy of Chapman’s  Whole Works of Homer  (1616). The volume includes Coleridge’s annotations and inscription to Sara Hutchinson, the object of the poet’s unrequited love.

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Gert von Gontard was a book collector, patron of the arts, and publisher of the 1930s avant-garde literary and arts magazine Neue Revue. Forced to flee his native Germany during World War II, he devoted his life to what he described as “the holy mission of art, the overcoming of international prejudice.” His personal collection, donated to Washington University in 1981, includes more than 4,500 volumes on art, literature, music, and theater. Approximately 1,200 items are related to Johann Wolfgang van Goethe, ranging from first editions to autograph letters and an original drawing by the young Goethe. The von Gontard family continues to support the collection and to enhance its holdings.

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St. Louis educator, reading specialist, and long-time collector of children’s books Henrietta Maizner Hochschild donated a choice selection from her library — more than 1,000 books, magazines, and ephemeral pieces documenting the evolution of children’s literature — to Washington University in the 1980s and ’90s. The collection is used by researchers interested in the influence that fairy tales, fantasy, and other popular works have had on the literary, social, and moral development of writers and artists who read these books as children. Students of book history and its related specializations — design, illustration, the interplay of text and image — also find the collection a valuable resource.

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Under the influence and guidance of Holly Hall, head of Special Collections from 1975 to 1995, the Department developed its collections in the book arts. Hall was interested in books that encourage discussion of the nature of the book itself — the relationship of text and image, and the ways in which design contributes to reading and understanding. Items purchased for this collection include artists’ books and works by fine presses, and often feature unusual structures or thought-provoking design elements.

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In 1968 Mr. and Mrs. Maurice Mendle established a collection in honor of Mr. Mendle’s father, Isador Mendle (1882-1935), a leader in the St. Louis printing industry and the founder of the Mendle Press, INc. Mendle’s interest in the printing processes of the 20th century suggested a new focus within the Libraries’ printing history collections, namely, developments in printing since the Industrial Revolution, with an emphasis on the last 100 years. Included are examples of fine commercial work that represent early uses of new technologies, as well as works that describe technical developments. Notable holdings include process materials from the innovative Gogmagog Press, as well as the papers of printing historian James Moran.

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The James E. and Joan Singer Schiele Print Collection, 1848-1890, consists of Civil War prints and other historical images. The prints include portraits, battle scenes, and political cartoons representing a variety of printing techniques from woodcut to chromolithograph. A highlight of the collection is a set of thirty-six Kurz & Allison prints. The entire collection consists of over 160 artistic pieces. These prints make up a visual overview of historical events during one of the nation’s most tumultuous times, and provide a strong background for cultural and historical studies.

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In September 2004, Constance and Monroe Levy made a gift to the University to be used by the Department of Special Collections to purchase children’s books and, in particular, to support the teaching of Dr. Gerald Early, the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters and director of the Center for the Humanities. When Dr. Early espressed a desire to acquire multiple editions of a single influential children’s book used in his courses — for example, The Story of Little Black Sambo — we purchased a wide-ranging collection of nearly 300 primary sources (books and realia) that document this text, its publishing and illustration history, and its treatment in the mass market.

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Special Collections’ most comprehensive holdings are found in its Modern Literature Collection. Unique literary archives (found in the manuscript unit) form the core of this collection and are complemented by definitive collections of published works: first editions, later editions, copies corrected or inscribed by the authors, and other materials pertaining to the authors’ lives and writing. In the years since his collection was formed, its list of authors has grown from 46 to more than 175, including such figures as William Gaddis, James Merrill, Howard Nemerov, and May Swenson. The authors names link to searches of their individual libraries or search the entire collection using the box at the top of the page.

Manuscript Collections

The Arnold Semeiology Collection is perhaps the most varied and unusual of the rare book collections. Broadly concerned with the history of communications, its particular strengths are in the areas of cryptography; artificial memory; decipherment of ancient writing systems; universal languages; and early developments in stenography, Braille, languages for the deaf, and various forms of non-verbal communication. After his initial gift, Arnold worked with Special Collections for roughly 30 years to develop and expand the collection to some 1,600 volumes. The collection includes materials from 1490 to the present, and the Department continues to make additions, most recently through the purchase of Francis Guelker’s collection of books on 20th-century cryptography.

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The Brisman Collection in Jewish Studies was purchased by Washington University in 1972 from Shimeon Brisman, a Judaic bibliographer at the UCLA Library and expert in Hebrew bibliography. Several hundred of the collection’s nearly 3,600 volumes are located in Special Collections (the rest are in Olin Library’s general collection). Half the volumes are in Hebrew. An impressive array of bibliographic works makes up approximately one-fourth of the collection. Several hundred works of modern Yiddish prose and poetry, as well as hundreds of rabbinical commentaries, responsa, and liturgical literature are also included.

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The Libraries’ 1998 acquisition of a copy of the Kelmscott Press’s magnificent Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1896) complemented Special Collections’ substantial holdings of private press books and spurred the Department to further develop its collections related to the English Arts & Crafts movement. The Triple Crown Collection, built over 68 years by collector Charles Gould, was acquired by the Libraries in 2000. The collection includes virtually the complete published output of the Kelmscott, Doves, and Ashendene presses, which together represent the pinnacle of English Arts & Crafts bookmaking. What makes this collection especially valuable for researchers is that Gould also amassed hundreds of items relating to the history and production of each press. The collection includes business correspondence, proof pages, alternate bindings, preparatory sketches, and even original woodcut printing blocks.

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