Rare Book Collection

The Rare Book Collection contains materials dating back more than 500 years. Maintained primarily to support Western’s teaching curriculum and student research, it also provides materials for library exhibitions, public programming, and community engagement.

The oldest item in the collection is an ancient Babylonian cuneiform tablet. Examples of early European printing and illustration processes are held, along with historical bookbindings from around the world. In addition to a small collection of leaves from medieval manuscripts, several dozen high-quality reproductions of famous manuscripts, such as the Trinity Apocalypse and Ellesmere Chaucer, are available. 

Notable books on the history of exploration include first editions of the narratives of James Cook and George Vancouver. The collection also contains works on the settlement of Washington and Oregon as well as selected titles on the exploration of the American West. George Catlin’s Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians is a cornerstone of Native American studies; other available books in this area focus mainly on the Pacific Northwest and include rare dictionaries of indigenous languages from the region.

Holdings in the field of literature are relatively limited at present but are being targeted for future development. Though a few major works, including a first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, are held, this part of the collection is strongest in the area of Northwest fiction and poetry, including works by British Columbia authors. Approximately eighty books and broadsides document the history of Fishtown, an art colony located in Skagit County, Washington, from the 1960s to the 1980s.

More than 100 examples of modern book arts / artists’ books are available, providing material for student projects and presentations related to art, design, and publishing. In 2018, a donation of several hundred comics and graphic novels was added to the collection.

About 200 books from the Western Libraries’ prominent Mongolian Studies Collection are shelved in Special Collections because of their rarity or need for special handling. These are complemented by a number of works on the Russian Far East and Central Asia, together with a selection of other Asian materials. Recent acquisitions in this area include a palm leaf manuscript, two Buddhist sutras, and several Japanese illustrated books.

The Rare Book Collection has been developed primarily through donations. We welcome the opportunity to consider gifts to this growing collection. For information about donation, contact: speccoll@wwu.edu.