Skip to Main Content
Ask Us!Toggle Chat Widget

Making Connections: Finding Hidden Collections in Special Collections

Walker Library / Special Collections / Making Connections

Making Connections

Finding Hidden Collections in Special Collections


Special collections and rare book libraries are not really in the business of collecting old or scarce books, although they often do acquire books that are hundreds of years old and editions that are indeed hard to come by. Instead, what they actually do is build collections of books—books and other materials about a particular subject or that have some other rationale or coherence that unites each item in the collection to all the others. These collections can be very specific (perhaps manuscripts of Puritan sermons from seventeenth-century America) or the collections can be very broad (say, publications from nineteenth- and twentieth-century France).

In Walker Library, Special Collections actively acquires books and archival materials in several well-defined categories. Among others, these include the Distilling, Fermenting, and Brewing Collection; the Margaret Lindsley Warden Collection for Equine Studies; the Early Tennessee Imprints Collection; and the Artists’ and Dimensional Books Collection.

Every book we purchase fits within and enhances an established collection. But typically there are correspondences among individual books within the larger collection—collections within collections, so to speak. We call these “micro-collections.” Within the Distilling, Fermenting, and Brewing Collection, for instance, we have a cluster of books on moonshining. In the Early Tennessee Imprints Collection there are a handful of nineteenth-century books on freemasonry.

Micro-collections need not be comprised of books from a single larger collection. Books from different collections can share similar content. Among our pop-up and movable books in the Artists’ and Dimensional Books Collection is the Outlines of Anatomy and Physiology, published at Philadelphia in 1847, which uses a “flap book” format to represent the human body. The Outlines can be grouped with the early nineteenth-century medical books in the Early Tennessee Imprints Collection.

The micro-collection can emerge by chance or choice: in developing a large, coherent rare book collection, librarians either recognize a subset of similar books within a large collection, or they consciously develop a subset. This can be highly satisfying work when the subset appeals to the librarian’s interests and reflects something of the librarian’s personality or imagination.

The rare book librarian is happy enough to acquire titles that form a micro-collection and even happier if the title contributes to micro-collections across larger collections. This exhibit celebrates the richness and diversity of intended and serendipitous micro-collections, offering our viewers a new way to appreciate the depth and breadth of our holdings.