Sam Howzit
Sam Howzit

15 Incredibly Specific Special Collections Libraries

Sam Howzit
Sam Howzit

Special collections libraries are a strange and wonderful world, full of odd collections and even odder researchers. We chose a handful of our favorites.

1. The Grolier Club

This private society for bibliophiles on Manhattan’s Upper East Side features an entire library of books about books. Featuring topics ranging from printing techniques to histories of the book to examples of especially fine bindings, this library is a bibliophile’s playground.

2. The Browne Popular Culture Library

This special collections library at Bowling Green State University in Ohio is something of a legend among librarians. Their collections include over 10,000 comic books and graphic novels, an array of materials related to the Miss America pageant, a Pokemon collection, Star Trek memorabilia, and a collection of vintage paperbacks.

3. The Marion Nestle Food Studies Collection

This culinary history collection at NYU’s Fales Library includes many gems, including the 3500-volume library of cookbooks from Gourmet magazine.

4. The Lilly Library

Indiana University’s amazing special collections facility in Bloomington has 16,000 miniature books, along with a huge collection of puzzles and many other oddities. Their exhibits are also top notch; it’s worth a visit if you’re passing through Indiana.

5. The Folger Shakespeare Library

Established in 1932, the Folger is an impressive research institution in Washington, D.C. that collects materials related to Shakespeare and the early modern period.

6. Barnard Zine Library

Barnard College is a liberal arts college for women, so it’s no surprise that their zine collection focuses on zines written by women. They also make a special effort to collect zines by women of color.

7. DC Punk Archive

An archive about punk music is pretty specific—but what about an entire archive about the punk scene in Washington, D.C.? It’s in the works under the auspices of the D.C. Public Library.

8. The Peace Collection

Swarthmore College, in the Philadelphia suburbs, hosts this collection dedicated to peace activism and related materials. They have a great collection of political buttons, among other things. Their collections complement the Quaker-related collections of the Friends Historical Library, which is also housed at Swarthmore.

9. The Center for Southwest Research

Many special collections libraries are organized by region, like the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico. The Center collects materials on the Southwestern United States and Latin America, and it’s located in Albuquerque.

10. Harry Ransom Center

Based at the University of Texas at Austin, the Harry Ransom Center collections of cultural materials include a truly impressive array of manuscripts and works-in-progress by some of the world’s greatest writers and artists to help provide insight into the creative process.

11. Presbyterian Historical Society

Entire collections dealing with a religious group are not uncommon. This library in Center City Philadelphia documents the history of the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of the largest Protestant denominations in the United States.

12. Juilliard Library and Archives

Many large universities with music departments have dedicated music libraries, but Juilliard is arguably the best-known music and performing arts institution in the country. The library includes scores, sound recordings, and books on music, dance and drama.

13. Human Sexuality Collection

The Human Sexuality Collection at Cornell University documents sexual history, especially lesbian and gay history and the history of pornography. The collection includes published and unpublished materials in the form of written works, photographs, video, and oral histories.

14. Walt Disney Archives

Many large corporations maintain their own archives to document and celebrate their company history. Materials from the Walt Disney Archives are frequently exhibited to the public in southern California and beyond.

15. National Museum of Natural History Library

It’s hard to pick just one of the Smithsonian’s libraries, but this one contains a plethora of cool science-related collections, from zoology to mineralogy to volcanology. The library collections support research on the natural history specimens maintained by the museum, but they’re also open to outside researchers.

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How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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iStock

Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Your Library Has a Free Music Service That You Probably Didn't Know About
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iStock

Did you know that you can download free music from your local library? Music that you can keep. That's right: not borrow, keep.

It's all possible thanks to a service called Freegal (a portmanteau of free and legal), which gives patrons of participating libraries access to 15 million songs from 40,000 labels, notably including the Sony Music Entertainment catalog. All you need is a library card.

Here's how it works: You can download a few songs a week, and, in many areas, enjoy several hours of streaming, too (the precise number of songs and hours of streaming varies by library). Once you download MP3 files, they're yours. You're free to put them on iTunes, your iPhone, your tablet, and more. You don't have to return them and they don't expire. The counter resets on Mondays at 12:01 a.m. Central Time, so if you hit your limit, you won't have long to wait before you get more downloads. And Freegal has some great stuff: A quick scan of the front page reveals music from Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, Cardi B, Simon & Garfunkel, Childish Gambino, The Avett Brothers, Lykke Li, and Sara Bareilles.

Freegal has been around since 2010 and is offered at libraries worldwide. In the U.S., that includes the New York Public Library, Queens Library, Los Angeles Public Library, West Chicago Public Library, Houston Public Library, and more. In the past few years, libraries have debuted some other amazing free digital services, from classic films streaming on Kanopy to audiobooks and e-books available to borrow on SimplyE and OverDrive. But the thing that's so exciting about Freegal is that you can keep the MP3 files, unlike services that limit you to borrowing.

Freegal's site is easy to navigate: You can browse playlists and make your own, check out the most popular tunes, and save songs to your wishlist for when you get more credits. In the old days, music fans would check out CDs from the library and upload them onto their computers before returning them. But Freegal eliminates the need to go to your local branch, check out an album, and bring it back when you're done.

Freegal app
Freegal

To find out if your local library has Freegal, go to freegalmusic.com and click login, then search for your area. It's important to note: Your library's contract might not have both streaming and downloading privileges. You can use Freegal on the web or as an app available on the App Store, Google Play, and Amazon. Of course, the service doesn't have everything. And sometimes, when it does have an artist, it will only have a few of their most popular albums. But if you frequently buy music on iTunes or elsewhere, checking Freegal first may save you a bit of money.

If you don't yet have a library card, Freegal is just one more reason why you should get one ASAP.

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