Main Library · Rare Books and Special Collections

The Rare Books & Special Collections Department has been merged into the Genealogy & Local History Department as part of the Main Library for the 21st Century reorganization.

Third Floor—Bridge
Main Library/North Building

Manager: Patricia Van Skaik

About the Department

While the Rare Books and Special Collections Department houses some of the Library’s oldest materials, the department has a relatively short history, tracing its beginnings to the opening of the new library building in 1955. At that time, rare and valuable materials that had previously been scattered throughout the Library were gathered and housed on the third floor in a rare book department, with a display area in what is today the Huenefeld Tower Room. With the renovation of the building in 1982, the department moved to new space and an adjoining reading room, the John T. Nolan, Jr. Rare Book Room, was opened. In January 1997, the department moved to new quarters located on the bridge connecting the North and South Buildings, with an expanded reading room, extended hours and a new climate controlled stack area to preserve fragile materials.

The Collection

Through careful development by Library staff and the generosity of private donors and the Friends of the Library, the collection of over 43,000 books, 23,000 photographs and numerous maps, blueprints, broadsides and prints has become a major local cultural and research resource. The collection is particularly strong in the following areas:Cincinnatiana, the Ohio River valley, Americana (including the European discovery and exploration of the Americas), book arts, Bibles, and the collected works of authors such as Lafcadio Hearn, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Rudyard Kipling, Hugh Walpole, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Holdings of particular note include:

The Inland Rivers Library
materials pertaining to the commercial use of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and their navigable tributaries
The Loeb Collection
one of the strongest public library collections of artists’ books in the U.S.
The Louis Kahn Collection
a collection of English language dictionaries published through 1876
The Fontayne and Porter Daguerreotype
a rare panoramic view of the Cincinnati waterfront taken in 1848
The Audubon Elephant Folio
A rare copy of John James Audubon’s Birds of America. (A digital reproduction of the folio is available through the Musée de la civilisation in Quebec.)
Lafcadio Hearn
Author, translator, educator, one of the first Western authors to detail 19th century Japanese life and a resident of Cincinnati from 1869–1877
The Bible Collection

Use of the Collection

Rare Books and Special Collections Guidelines for Usage

The Rare Books and Special Collections Department is open to all Library users. Since the department collects and preserves some of the Library’s most unique and valuable material, users must observe special rules in order to guarantee the safety and preservation of those materials. The department is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Users of materials must register with staff at the service desk. It is not necessary to register if you are viewing the displays.
A valid PLCH library card, driver’s license, personal check with printed name and address, voter registration card, state identification card, student identification card or passport must be presented when requesting materials. Your identification will be kept at the desk while materials are being used and will be returned to you when materials are returned.
Personal Belongings
Briefcases, backpacks, notebooks, books, totebags, folders, envelopes, umbrellas, purses, hats, bulky coats, typewriters, cameras, voice recorders, and cellular phones are not allowed while using Rare Books and Special Collections materials. Quiet personal microcomputers are allowed. Any other items must be approved for usage by Rare Books staff.
Lockers are available for storing personal items while using Rare Books and Special Collections materials. Locker keys must be returned at the end of the day. A fee is charged if the locker key is lost.
Eating, drinking and smoking are not allowed in the Library.
Briefcases, backpacks, packages and other belongings may be inspected by Library Security staff upon exiting the building.
Collection Use
Rare Books and Special Collections materials are housed entirely in closed stacks. No materials may be removed from the department, left unattended or given to another reader. You may be limited in the number of items you may use at one time.
As a preservation measure, only pencils, paper and magnifying glasses are allowed while using materials. Ink pens, colored pencils and other markers are not allowed.
Please handle all materials with care. Do not make marks on materials or write notes on top of material. Do not lay open books face down or rest books or rest other objects on the face or surface of other materials being used. Tracings or rubbings may not be made. Please keep photographs and manuscripts in the order in which they are arranged in folders or boxes.
Photocopy and Photography Service
A photocopying service is available for a fee (receipts are not available). Material may be photocopied only at the discretion of Rare Books and Special Collections staff, and all photocopying will be completed by staff. Materials that are too fragile or large may not be available for photocopying. Copyright, donor restrictions, trademark and other restrictions apply to all photocopying.
Camera copying that does not require lights or other equipment, does not disrupt department service, and does not require special handling of materials is allowed, per staff approval. Photographs for news and commercial purposes must be approved in advance by the head of Public Relations or the Building Supervisor.
Arrangements may be made for reproduction-quality photographs. A reproduction fee is charged if the material is to be used in a commercial publication. Please ask at the service desk for further information.

PLEASE NOTE: Surveillance cameras monitor activity in the Rare Books and Special Collections Department

Reference Service

Staff of the Rare Books and Special Collections Department provide reference service to customers in-house, by phone and by mail.


The Rare Books and Special Collections Department has produced a number of bibliographies highlighting the department’s collection. Ask at the department’s service desk for copies of these bibliographies.

The Fontayne and Porter Daguerreotype

Thumbnail image of the Daguerreotype

In September 1848, photographers Charles Fontayne and William S. Porter set up their camera on a rooftop along the Ohio River in Newport, Kentucky to take a panoramic view of Cincinnati. They panned their camera across Cincinnati’s waterfront, each time capturing a different segment of the growing city’s skyline. The resulting images from that September day, eight whole-plate daguerreotypes, were simply titled “Daguerreotype View of Cincinnati. Taken from Newport, Ky.” Recognized then and now as one of the finest sets of daguerreotypes of its kind, this dramatic view of Cincinnati is known today as “The Cincinnati Panorama” and is included in the collection of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. A reproduction of the Panorama can be seen as a mural in the Atrium of the Main Library’s South Building.

For more information about the Panorama, please contact the Rare Books and Special Collections Department. Digital prints of plates 1-8 are available for purchase.

Recent Acquisitions

These recent acquisitions have been made possible through the generous support of the Friends of the Public Library.

Dr. John Trusler: Poetic Endings; or a Dictionary of Rhymes, Single and Double; more copious than any collection yet published. Comprising nearly all the Words in the English Language, and regulated by the best Modern Pronunciation. Printed for the author and sold by R. Baldwin, Paternoster-Row. London, 1783.

A first English edition of part one of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. It complements the department’s collection of Americana and serves as a companion to the complete French edition that the Friends purchased in 1964.

A rare 32-page promotional pamphlet from 1755 describing Samuel Johnson’s plan for creating an English dictionary. This complements the extensive English language dictionary collection.

The Holy Bible Containing All the Books of the Old and New Testaments. North Hatfield, MA: Pennyroyal Caxton Press, 1999. 2 volumes.
This exquisite Bible is a stunning example of the modern artist’s book. The scriptural text is illustrated with 232 powerful relief engravings by the acclaimed artist Barry Moser. The illustrations, however, are only a part of a unified whole, in which typography, text, paper, illustrations, and binding combine to form a single work of art—in this instance a work of art which is filled with “reverence, devotion, and a sense of awe and mystery.”

The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version, Containing the Old and New Testaments with the Apocryphal or Deuterocanonical Books. San Francisco: Arion Press, 2000. 2 volumes.
This lectern Bible was designed and produced under the direction of Andrew Hoyem along with a staff of eight craftspeople. At the beginning of the twenty-first century this is the most recently produced letterpress and handbound Bible, and was in production for two years. The edition is limited to 400 numbered and 26 lettered copies.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer’s Comrade). By Mark Twain. New York: Charles L. Webster, 1885.
This is the first American edition, an early issue in the scarce publisher’s binding of dark brown half morocco, gilt, with marbled paper boards, edges and end papers, in a cloth chemise and brown morocco gilt slipcase.