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Rare Collections

The State Library of Pennsylvania began collecting books with its official founding in 1745 and continues to build its unique collection of materials by, for, and about Pennsylvania. Our rare and special collections include several groupings.

Assembly Collection
The core of the State Library's Rare Collections Library is the Original Assembly Collection which numbers over 400 extant volumes. These books were purchased by the Pennsylvania Assembly, beginning in 1745 for the legislators' reference in governing the Commonwealth. This collection contains primarily law books, but also dictionaries, books on architecture, philosophy, history and religion.

Pennsylvania Imprints
Rare books published by presses in Pennsylvania cities large and small, between 1685 and 1865. These imprints include: (1) religious tracts, works of piety and sermons, (2) almanacs, (3) political tracts and legislative proceedings, (4) reports of social welfare, abolitionist, women's suffrage and other societies, (5) works of history and geography, especially school textbooks, and (6) juvenile books.

Miscellaneous Rarities
The State Library's collection of rare works also includes a wide variety of non-Pennsylvania imprints, dating from the incunabula period of the 15th century through the 20th century. The earliest volume in the collection is Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle (Liber chronicarum) (1493). This varied collection—much of it published by European presses—ranges from William Penn's plea for religious toleration, Christian liberty as it was soberly desired in a letter to certain foreign states upon occasion of their late severity of their inhabitants, merely for their different persuasion and practice in point of faith and worship towards God (London, 1675), and George Whitfield's pamphlet on The enthusiasm of Methodists and papists compar'd (1749) to Louis Agassiz's Contributions to the natural history of the United States of America (1857).

The Pamphlet Collection
Another important rare collection, especially valuable for the study of Pennsylvania's social and intellectual history in the 19th and 20th centuries, is the Pamphlet Collection of some four thousand volumes. Examples from this important rare resource include Dorothea Dix's Memorial soliciting a state hospital for the insane (1845), A report of the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States and the judges thereof , in the case of Dred Scott versus John F.A. Sanford (1857), and an Address upon the late Joseph Leidy, a eulogy (the famous University of Pennsylvania paleontologist) offered by William Hunt (1892). The State Library has been focusing on digitizing this unique collection and titles from it can be read online.

Interesting Collection Tidbits
Visit a page that high lights some of the most often requested publications, books, and posters in the State Library’s Rare Collections Library as well as the Pennsylvania State Archives.

For more information about conducting research in our Rare and Special Collections, please contact Michael Lear, Rare Collections Librarian, at or 717-783-5982.