The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County
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March 2003

Special Collections & Indexes—Rare Books and Special Collections Department

Many of the Library’s most important, unusual, and valuable collections are housed in the Rare Books and Special Collections Department at the Main Library. This department is a library within the Library: its collections run the gamut of all the subject areas that the Library collects and provide special materials and subject depth to complement the general collection. The department houses materials that are intrinsically valuable, such as the Audubon elephant folio, as well as significant special collections, such as the Inland Rivers Library.

The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County was founded when Cincinnati was the sixth largest city in the United States, and far-sighted librarians and civic-minded donors have always looked upon it as a major cultural and research resource for the community. Thanks to 150 years of collecting and preserving, the Rare Books and Special Collections Department possesses strong collections in the following areas.

Cincinnati Collection

The Cincinnati Collection traces its ancestry back to 1856 when John D. Caldwell, the Librarian, stated that, “There should be in this Library, all those Historical works pertaining to the History of the West, and more particularly of the City of Cincinnati. There should be…copies of all books, papers, and pamphlets, printed and published in Cincinnati, from its foundation.” Over the years, the scope of the Cincinnati Collection has evolved to include books written by Cincinnatians, but not necessarily published in Cincinnati, and books about Cincinnati no matter where they are published. Among the important books found in Cincinnati Collection, the department has the first book published in Cincinnati in 1796, Laws of the Territory of the United States North-West of the Ohio (commonly referred to as Maxwell’s Code), plus the writings of many early Cincinnatians, such as Jacob Burnet, Daniel Drake, and James Hall.
Rare Books & Special Collections Department

Ohio Valley Collection

The Ohio Valley Collection is the sister of the Cincinnati Collection and also traces its history back to Librarian Caldwell’s plea in 1856, that there “should be in this Library, all those Historical works pertaining to the History of the West.” In 1856 the Ohio Valley was “the West,” and so today the collection deals with the drainage area of the Ohio River. The collection includes gazetteers, directories, histories and travel accounts relating to Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, West Virginia and Tennessee.
Rare Books & Special Collections Department

Discovery and Exploration Collection

The foundation of the Discovery and Exploration Collection was laid in 1876 when the library purchased from Robert Clarke & Company of Cincinnati duplicates from the Julius Warren (Leon) and Harriet Lewis Library. Books in this collection relate to the discovery and exploration of the Americas from the voyages of Columbus to the expeditions of Lewis and Clark and Zebulon Pike. One of the most important books in this collection is a 1494 Basel edition of the Columbus Letter, which contains the earliest known illustration of the New World.
Rare Books & Special Collections Department

Inland Rivers Library

Cincinnati Public Landing circa 1872

The Inland Rivers Library was established in 1956 when the Library received a large gift of river material from the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen, an organization devoted to the preservation of river history, and from Captain Way, Jr., a noted steamboat pilot and river historian. Merging these materials with the Library’s own river holdings, the Inland Rivers Library has become a major resource for books, manuscripts, photographs, maps, and ephemera dealing with the commercial use of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and their navigable tributaries. One of the most significant items in the collection is the Cincinnati Panorama of 1848, an eight-plate panorama taken by photographers Charles Fontayne and William S. Porter. It is the earliest known photograph of Cincinnati’s waterfront and the earliest to depict a western rivers steamboat.
Rare Books & Special Collections Department


Shadowings by Lafcadio Hearn

The Rare Books Department contains a number of important Author Collections. The largest and oldest Author Collection, which was started in 1944, contains more than 600 volumes by and about Lafcadio Hearn in English, Japanese, and many European languages. It’s particularly significant that the Library owns the only known complete set of Ye Giglampz, Hearn’s short-lived literary journal, which he did in collaboration with Henry Farny. In addition to Lafcadio Hearn, the department also collects the works of American authors who have won the Nobel Prize and the works of such literary figures as Mark Twain, Sir Winston Churchill, W. Somerset Maugham, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and William Makepeace Thackeray.
Rare Books & Special Collections Department


The English Language Dictionary Collection finds its roots in the Louis E. Kahn Collection of Dictionaries, which was donated to the Library by Mrs. Sarah Kahn in 1961. Over the years this collection has grown into one of the major collections of English language dictionaries in the United States, as the Library continues to pursue Mr. Kahn’s ambition to acquire one copy of every edition of every English language dictionary published through 1876. It contains first editions as well as later editions of the works of such great lexicographers as Nathan Bailey, Samuel Johnson, John Walker, and Noah Webster.
Rare Books & Special Collections Department


The foundation of the Library’s Bible Collection was laid in 1925 when Librarian Chalmers Hadley used gift funds to purchase the private collection of Rees C. Vidler of Denver, Colorado. Mr. Vidler’s collection was rich in pre-King James’ Versions, and it contained the scarcest of all English Bibles, the Miles Coverdale Version. In addition to English Bibles, the collection also included a number of early European Bibles, especially Dutch. Donations over the years by various individuals of a number of rare and important Bibles have enhanced the collection. A significant addition to the collection was made when the Library was given Daniel B. Meacham’s collection of 17 Bibles, which included the first issue of the first edition of the 1611 Authorized or King James’ Version.
Rare Books & Special Collections Department

Book Arts

The Rare Books Department collects fine examples of the book arts, which includes fine bindings, printing by great printers from Gutenberg to today, specimens of fine paper both hand- and machine-made, and examples showing the development of book illustration. Among the collections in the area of book arts are: the works of Dard Hunter on the art of paper-making; the Loeb Collection of artist books, including works by Matisse, Manet, and Picasso, among others; the Cruikshank Collection containing most of the books illustrated by George and Robert Cruikshank; and the works of a number of fine presses, including the Kelmscott Press, Book Club of California, Bird & Bull Press, Arion Press, and Limited Editions Club.
Rare Books & Special Collections Department


The department has a large collection of bibliographies that provide access to written Americana, especially in the areas of history, literature, and science, and on subjects that support the department’s holdings. In order to help individuals establish the value of a particular publication, the department maintains auction catalogs and book price guides, such as American Book Prices Current and Bookman’s Price Index, which aid in establishing an approximate idea of current market value.
Rare Books & Special Collections Department


The Rare Books Department has three separate collections of Cincinnati postcards: the Paul F. Bien Collection, which was donated by a local postcard collector; the Clyde N. Bowden Collection, which was donated by a former library staff member; and the Cincinnati Postcard Collection, which is made up of postcards donated by various individuals since the department’s formation in 1955. Over 3500 of these postcards can be viewed on the Greater Cincinnati Memory Project website.
Rare Books & Special Collections Department