Founded in the late 1940s with the acquisition of the Chester H. Thordarson Collection, the Department's holdings include rare books, manuscripts and archives, printed ephemera, pictorial materials, and a significant reference collection. Among the collection strengths are English and American literature, history of science, history of the book, European collections, and philosophy and theology.
The Department also contains many books previously held in the circulating collections of the University of Wisconsin-Madison libraries because those books require special handling. Many books published before 1800, for example, are automatically transferred to Special Collections.
A brief history of the department is available in Dennis A. Hill, “The rare book department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison: Origins and early developments, 1948-1960,” Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, v. 72, 1984, 40-48. The issues of the Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters beginning with 1870-1872 are available as part of the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.