This department, like departments of special collections of other institutions, contains manuscripts and works conventionally labeled rare books, which benefit from special handling because of their age, rarity, or value. We also house collections that are themselves of unique research value, because they concentrate on a particular author, publisher, topic, or genre and thereby permit scholars to explore a subject in great depth.

Our collections are housed in environmentally controlled vaults, and made available to readers in a supervised reading room. We welcome users of our collections, and ask that you understand that our special procedures are designed to ensure that these collections are available to you and other users for many decades to come.

Other collections of materials requiring special handling, and old, rare, or historical collections are available at other campus locations. They include (but are not limited to):


  • Special Collections materials must be used in the Special Collections reading room.
  • Books, manuscripts, and other materials paged from the Special Collections vaults are available for use in the reading room 9:00 a.m. - 4:50 p.m.
  • Open to all patrons of Memorial Library.
  • A few especially fragile or oversize items, including the Coverdale Bible, the Audubon double-elephant folios, books from Newton's library, Bradstreet's Tenth muse, and the first edition of Darwin's Origin of species are available for consultation only by prior arrangement with the Curator.
  • Reference works are available in the reading room once readers have signed the daily register. Other Special Collections books, manuscripts, and other materials -- stored in temperature and humidity-controlled vaults -- can be paged at the desk and then consulted in the reading room.
  • Catalogs and finding aids: most of the Department's holdings are cataloged in the Library Catalog. Until the retrospective conversion of the card catalog to online form is complete, for other works you will need to consult the card catalogs and paper finding aids in the Department.
  • The British Library printed catalog, biographical dictionaries, and retrospective dealer catalogs shelved in the adjoining Special Collections Seminar Room are available when the room is not in use by classes.

Requesting Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Other Special Collections Holdings

  • Place briefcases, purses, and backpacks in the lockers; coats and umbrellas in the cloakroom. (Free locker keys are available at the desk.) Keep your photo identification
  • Please sign the daily register. If it is your first visit, fill out a registration card.
  • Fill out a charge card for each title in the vaults.
  • Only pencils may be used in the Special Collections reading room. Pencils are available at the reference deskdesk.
  • A Special Collections staff member will collect your identification in exchange for paged works; when you have finished in the Reading Room, return the Special Collections books and manuscripts to the desk and retrieve your identification.
  • Items may be kept on reserve for short periods.

Using Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Other Special Collections Holdings

We ask that you please
  • Do not leave books or manuscripts unattended. Notify the desk whenever you leave the Reading Room.
  • Turn pages carefully.
  • Open books only on the cloth book rests or reading stands.
  • Request weights for books that will not stay open.
  • Use acid-free bookmarks only, available from staff.
  • Request special approval before tracing illustrations.
  • Do not:
    • lay books face down
    • reshelve reference materials
    • mark pages or write on paper upon a book
  • Use of some fragile items requires cotton gloves.
  • Please ask a staff member to cut uncut pages.
  • Please notify the staff about damaged material.
  • As a rule, four volumes may be at a reader's place in the Special Collections reading room.

Copying of Texts or Illustrations

Many readers request copies of text or images. Subject to current copyright laws and the condition of the work, limited copying is often possible. If not, staff may be able to help you find an alternative.

Photocopying: Each item to be copied on our debit-card copier must be approved by Special Collections staff. A maximum of 20 pages per volume is permitted. Fragile or tightly bound items may not be copied.

Scanning and Microfilming: Available for some fragile titles. Arrangements for these services must be made at the desk.

Photography: Digital and conventional cameras may be used in the reading room with the approval of Special Collections staff. Ask at the desk to make arrangements.

Computers: Many users bring their computers for transcribing materials. Please leave computer cases in lockers.

Digital Images

Images can only be made from an item in Special Collections if the condition of the item permits. The Department may be able to make a limited number of digital images from items in its collections. In general, such images will be .jpg files at 300 dpi, delivered as e-mail attachments. To request an image, please supply us with author, title, date, page number or description of image, along with any special file format and resolution requirements.

Depending on the size and condition of the item, we may, however, refer the image request to the UW Digital Collections Center (608) 262-3197.


Requests to Quote or Publish

The University of Wisconsin Libraries generally do not own the copyrights to materials in their print, manuscript, and electronic collections. Consistent with their public university mission, the Libraries encourage the use of content in these collections for study, research, and teaching.

  • Most published works published after 1923 are protected by U. S. and international copyright laws.
  • Unpublished materials, including but not limited to correspondence and manuscripts, are also protected by copyright laws. Please ask the Curator about issues concerning requests to quote from or reproduce unpublished materials in Special Collections.

Fair Use

Fair use of copyright-protected works for study, research, and other purposes does not require the permission of the copyright owner provided that the use meets the standard specified in Section 107 of the U. S. Copyright Law.

Copyrighted Material

If the text or image is under copyright, it is the researcher's obligation, prior to publication or distribution, to determine and satisfy copyright requirements, or other use restrictions, from the owners of the rights. Copyright holders or owning institutions may charge permission fees. (The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas-Austin offers a convenient guide for researchers who need to identify copyright holders: http://tyler.hrc.utexas.edu/us.cfm.)

Requests to the Libraries

In general the Libraries of the University of Wisconsin-Madison can neither grant nor deny permission to publish texts or images from its holdings unless the University of Wisconsin is identified as the copyright holder for the original. Unless otherwise noted, it is thus not necessary to seek the Libraries' permission to publish texts or images unless the University of Wisconsin is identified as the copyright holder for the original.

The Libraries do, however, request that proper attribution be given in each instance of use. The preferred attribution wording for items in Special Collections is:

By courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Libraries also request a copy of any publication in a physical format (print, CD/DVD, etc.) in which a text or image from its collections is reproduced. In the case of text or images from holdings of the Department of Special Collections, the copy should be sent directly to:

Special Collections
990 Memorial Library
University of Wisconsin
728 State Street
Madison, WI 53706

For additional information, please contact the Curator of Special Collections at the above address or by phone at (608) 262-3243.

Class Sessions and Class Use of Special Collections Holdings

We welcome undergraduate and graduate classes. We can put together a sampler of relevant books and other materials for a class session, or work with instructors to select items for more detailed examination.

We will schedule a class session using Special Collections materials in our own seminar room (984 Memorial Library), equipped with wireless access, laptop, projector, screen, and object camera. Because the room is often in use, please give us as much notice as possible.

The seminar room is designed best to accommodate groups of fewer than 25. For practical reasons, we need in general to break a class larger than that into smaller groups to look at Special Collections materials; in some cases, it may be possible to arrange for multiple sections to visit Special Collections, each at its appointed time slot. Please confer with us about options.

Those who use the Special Collections seminar room will need to put coats in the cloakroom and bookbags, purses, backpacks, etc. in the free lockers available for this purpose. Only laptops, pencils, notebooks, and textbooks may be brought into the seminar room. No food or drink, of course.

With the aid of an overhead color scanner appropriate for Special Collections materials — and sufficient advance notice — we can also create small online exhibits for your classes: see, for example, a course-related exhibit drawing upon the Department's holdings of works by Sacrobosco.

Section of Prof. Lee Wandel's History 119 course (fall 2011), examining volumes of Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopedie