Are there any libraries in the world that allow visitors to actually handle or look at very rare books?
October 18, 2011 6:33 PM   Subscribe

Are there any libraries in the world that allow visitors to actually look closely at very rare books?

When I say rare I mean pre 17th century manuscripts, maybe things written on vellum, incunables, etc. Would also be interested in learning about newer collections that allowed some public access, but mostly wondering about the really older stuff.

Kind of guessing the answer here will be no, but I've been reading about famous libraries and was curious.
posted by imabanana to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
The Beinecke at Yale will usually let you look at stuff in the rare books area but they make you put on special gloves and it's possible you need to have a good reason. I went there once to look at the Voynich Manuscript [not as a student or anything] and they were super nice and let me look at it. They have a bunch of rules and procedures but if you have valid research interests you can look at things. This doesn't mean that you have to be writing a book necessarily but that you have to have a field of interest and some reason you need access to these things, most places will not let you browse, for example.

If you know people at libraries you can often get tours where you can look at things fairly close up. I've been lucky enough to get to see the odd medical history collection at the University of Alabama [including some vellum stuff] and there are a ton of curious archives like that that people are often willing to show off. What sort of regional or subject area are you interested in?
posted by jessamyn at 6:40 PM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes! Cornell University Libraries will let you do this. My awesome high school European history and literature class got to look at 16th century illustrated manuscripts up close there.
posted by Cygnet at 6:40 PM on October 18, 2011

Swem Library at William & Mary has a rare books collection that people are more than welcome to view/handle. Publication dates range from the 15th C to present day.
posted by jenny76 at 6:46 PM on October 18, 2011

Definitely - here in DC, the Library of Congress, through its Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room, is one of several.
posted by ryanshepard at 6:48 PM on October 18, 2011

Handle, I don't believe so; examine under glass, certainly: State Library of Victoria
posted by flabdablet at 6:51 PM on October 18, 2011

It helps if you have a reason. I got to hold the George Eliot's journal from the period when she was writing Middlemarch because I was writing a paper on the book. She used purple ink.
posted by alms at 7:00 PM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Monash University Rare books collection. Not sure how super old the books are, I got to look at 1930s Spanish civil war propaganda, and old children's books.
posted by titanium_geek at 7:04 PM on October 18, 2011

Oh yeah. Pretty much all special collections departments in universities will let you handle the majority of their collections. There will be a bunch of rules, and probably a librarian keeping an eye on things, but yeah.

I worked in a special collections department when I was in school. It was awesome! And we were always happy to have people actually come and use the materials.
posted by grapesaresour at 7:07 PM on October 18, 2011

Find a library with James Audubon's Birds of America on display and ask them if you can attend the next page-turning. This is somewhat of An Event because the book measures 39 by 26 inches. Once you're there, if you look trustworthy, they may let you assist. At least my college librarians did.
posted by djb at 7:14 PM on October 18, 2011

The Chapin Rare Books Library at Williams College allows you to handle books, but they will certainly be watching you. Their collection is MASSIVE, but most of it is in storage until 2015.
posted by DeltaZ113 at 7:22 PM on October 18, 2011

Seconding the Beinecke. According to my boyfriend (History grad student), who did a semester long fellowship there, you can definitely check out the older stuff and even though most of the material is digitized, if you have a compelling reason you can still handle the originals (in his case some of the digital material was hard to decipher). He also spent a fair amount of time at the Houghton Library last year. According to him, at the Houghton, you basically just have to register, show ID and state your purpose.
posted by eunoia at 7:23 PM on October 18, 2011

You might be surprised at how easy it is to get your hands on an old book. Most academic libraries have special collections and will let interested public in to see their holdings. Email or call the libraries in your area and see what you can get to. Are you willing to travel? The Mortimer Rare Book room at Smith College in Massachusetts has a large collection of incunabula and welcoming librarians.

Some libraries, like the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Huntington, are difficult to get into. I'm a reader at the Folger but I'm a grad student and had to submit an application--including letters of recommendation from my department. The Huntington is even more exclusive!
posted by apricot at 7:28 PM on October 18, 2011

The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto will be glad to register you as a user, and then about thirty minutes later you could be looking at whatever you want from their wonderful collection. They'd want your hands to be clean but they wouldn't make you wear gloves: oils from the fingers help keep the pages in good condition. The first thing I ever looked at there was from 1740, and that's what they explained to nervous me.
posted by wdenton at 7:30 PM on October 18, 2011

Newberry Library in Chicago will if you register as a researcher, which isn't hard.
posted by mbx at 7:37 PM on October 18, 2011

I went to the New York Public Library, and was able to see a Gutenberg Bible. I didn't touch it, but it wasn't under glass. Movable type vs. sliced bread? Winner =- movable type.
posted by theora55 at 8:17 PM on October 18, 2011

The Lilly Library at Indiana University, Bloomington.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 8:40 PM on October 18, 2011

I have a friend who works in the Rare Books Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia. They regularly have exhibits, and they have several items that can be viewed closely - including an extensive collection of cuneiform tablets and a page from a Gutenberg Bible. Also, they have Dickens' raven, Grip, who I've renamed "Hank" in my head for some completely unknown reason. Anyway, call ahead, make an appointment. Depending on what you'd like to see and why, librarians are very easygoing and intelligent folks and they'll help you figure out what's possible and what isn't.
posted by jph at 8:43 PM on October 18, 2011

The Harry Ransom Center lets you do that. The center also has the Gutenberg bible on permanent display.
posted by jchaw at 9:58 PM on October 18, 2011

Seconding the Newberry Library in Chicago. I once sweet-talked my way in using an out-of-date college student ID and got my SO in to boot. We donned little white gloves and checked out centuries old illuminated manuscripts. It was incredible.
posted by quadog at 10:35 PM on October 18, 2011

Find your nearest good-sized university, find their rare manuscript library, look up some stuff they have, go there and ask about it. Chances are good they'll let you see it unless it's particularly fragile/popular/whatever. That's one of the purposes of a library, after all. It helps if you have some academic-ish reason ("I wrote this paper paper about X and am totally fascinated, and was wondering if I could see one of X's incanabula that you have here.") And it helps if it's a quiet time of year.
posted by tchemgrrl at 5:59 AM on October 19, 2011

IAARare Book and Manuscript Curator. My library is open to anyone with a legitimate research interest in our materials. In practice what this means is that, if you come in and register, and ask to see something specific that is not crazy rare or fragile, we'll get it for you. (People who wander in and say "What do you have that's really old?" are regarded with a bit more suspicion. Also, despte what you may have read, we don't actually have the Necronomicon.)

All the pre-1600 manuscripts are restricted, and require permission of the curator, so if you don't have an actual research project and just want to look, that might not be possible. Early printed books are not restricted, however, except for a few things like the Gutenberg Bible. We mostly don't make you wear gloves, unless you're looking at an illuminated manuscript or a photographic print that might be damaged by skin oil, but please do wash your hands first.

I'm always happy to give tours to visiting MeFites, time permitting, so email me if you find yourself in town and I'll hook you up.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:01 AM on October 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Archivist here, just coming in to echo everything said above. We pretty much allow anyone to look at anything, but I think the best way to go about it will be to choose a library/archives that you want to visit and target specific items, rather than just going in and asking for the old books. You might visit the institution's website and look for information on past exhibits that featured the types of material you're interested in and note objects you'd like to see, or advanced search the online catalog using date ranges and object types. If you arrived at my archives armed with accession numbers and/or titles, I would pull whatever you wanted without blinking an eye.
posted by CheeseLouise at 7:11 AM on October 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Certainly UIUC's rare book collection will let you view/touch items (gloves needed). I was a page there when I was in graduate school and got to handle some very cool things, including the Book of Genesis from a Gutenberg 1456 edition Bible. It looked like it had been printed last year. Pictures aren't allowed. Be prepared to get dirty - decaying leather bound books will get all over you.
posted by davismbagpiper at 4:00 PM on October 19, 2011

I would think the Rare Book Room at the large university library in your town would let you in to handle some things. Just have some sort of research question to ask. If you're polite and have valid ID, it can be as simple as, "I just read The Name of the Rose and would love to see a real medieval manuscript. Could someone possibly spare the time...if not, when could I come back?" Libraries have, by God, the opposite problem these days.

Or you could walk up to the desk and say "LET ME TAKE A LOOK AT 341, YO." When I was at the Beinecke, my first real employer, there were plenty of items that were so famous as to be known only by their call number.
posted by skbw at 9:17 PM on October 20, 2011

You may not really, literally mean this by oldness...but, come to think of it, lots of papyri are in between sheets of glass, like little frames, so it's not that huge of a deal to let a layperson look at it.
posted by skbw at 9:28 PM on October 20, 2011

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