The collections of the Free Library of Philadelphia's Rare Book Department are vast and diverse. Ranging in age and scope from cuneiform tablets (the first writing of mankind, c. 3000 BCE) to examples of contemporary fine printing, the collections are representative of the history of written communication from its very beginnings to the present day, from the Western world to the Middle East and beyond. To simplify the array of subjects represented in the Rare Book Department, the collections have been divided here among several broad topics.

David and Bathsheba from the Penitential Psalms of a Book of Hours, Use of Paris, c. 1485-1499. Lewis E 97, f. 68r.

The History of the Book

Collections in the history of the book reach back to the time before the invention of movable type to tell the story of human civilization's quest to communicate information and ideas. The focus goes beyond individual texts to explore how ideas have been transmitted, trace the development of technologies for printing and illustrating books, and celebrate books as material expressions of our cultural heritage.

Alms house in Spruce Street from The City of Philadelphia as it appeared in the Year 1800, consisting of Twenty-Eight Plates. Drawn and engraved by W. Birth & Son, 1800.

Historical Collections

The Rare Book Department has a number of fine collections that document the history of early exploration and settlement of the Americas and the development of our federal constitutional republic.

Keats, John. Poems. London: Printed for C. and J. Ollier, 1817 (first edition). Flyleaf sonnet inscribed and written by Leigh Hunt (Sonnet to John Keats, March 2, 1817).


In addition to major collections of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens and Oliver Goldsmith, the Department houses smaller but significant collections of English and American literary manuscripts, correspondence, and first editions.

Beatrix Potter. Bunnies in the snow. Watercolor, 1894. Gift of W. Atlee Burpee, 1959. RBD BP ART 10a

Children’s Book and Illustrator Collections

Beginning with the gift of A.S.W. Rosenbach's personal collection of early American children's books, the Department has continued to collect original artwork, manuscripts, letters, and first editions of American, English and European books for children through the first half of the twentieth century.

Drawing of the Broad Street Theatre circa 1906 while under the ownership and management of Nixon & Zimmerman.  Torn down in 1937, the theater was located at Broad and Spruce.

Theatre Collection

With a special focus on Philadelphia, including playbills dating back to 1803, the Theatre Collection contains research materials on the history of American theatre, early film, and popular entertainment.

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