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Rare and Manuscript Collections

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Collecting Policies


Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC) holds scarce and irreplaceable historical artifacts in trust for the benefit of Cornell University, the public and for the international scholarly community. Its collections include more than 500,000 rare books, more than 70 million manuscripts, and another million photographs, paintings, prints, artifacts, audio visual and electronic media. RMC shares in Cornell University Library’s mission to enrich the intellectual life of Cornell by fostering information discovery and intellectual growth, and partnering in the development and dissemination of new knowledge.

Programs Supported by the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections

RMC acquires rare books, manuscripts, archives, artifacts, media, and other materials in all formats to serve the research and teaching needs of Cornell University’s faculty and students, and members of the public. Collections are built by RMC’s subject curators with attention to all formats, with a greatest emphasis placed on unique or scarce materials of enduring historical and cultural value. Materials are acquired through donation and purchase. Purchases are financed by income from endowments and by donations. RMC seeks the support of donors, and gifts of materials and funds are essential to maintaining and developing our collections.


A. Scope and Priorities of the Collections​

Areas of collecting interest are defined in part by the existing strengths of the collections. New collecting areas are added in response to evolving research and teaching needs, new disciplines or modes of intellectual inquiry, new University academic priorities, in anticipation of the needs of future scholarship, or in response to gift or other opportunities. The nature of collecting rare materials is fluid, and driven in large part by the ability to take advantage of unpredictable opportunities. Each acquisition opportunity is reviewed on its own merits and collecting policies and priorities are regularly reviewed. Because resources for acquisition and housing are finite, collecting is selective in all areas.


B. Gift Policies

RMC does not accept materials without legal transfer of title, deed of gift or deposit, official receipt or other written acknowledgment. RMC does not accept materials that will never be made available to the public.


C. Deposits

RMC does not ordinarily accept materials on deposit. However, materials will be accepted when the conditions for acceptance are favorable to Cornell University Library, usually with the understanding that such materials will be donated at a later date. Deposit agreements must be made in writing prior to acceptance. Materials on deposit will be properly housed, but they will not be cataloged or otherwise processed. Deposit materials are not necessarily covered by University insurance; owners may be required to provide their own insurance.


D. Deaccession Policy

Materials that duplicate existing holdings, or that do not fall within the scope of RMC collecting areas, may be transferred to a more appropriate collection within or outside Cornell University, or otherwise deaccessioned in accordance with Cornell University Library Policy, subject to the terms of acquisition, University regulations, and state and federal laws.


E. Cooperative Agreements

RMC seeks opportunities to work collaboratively with other repositories to achieve the greater goal of preserving historical resources, with the aim of avoiding both needless duplication and gaps in documentation. In some cases, another institution may be a more appropriate repository for materials offered to Cornell. Such materials may be referred to that other, more appropriate repository. It is also recognized as unavoidable that institutions sometimes collect in the same or overlapping areas. In cases where the collecting interests of RMC and another repository conflict, RMC curators will use the best interest of the scholarly community, as well as the best interests of Cornell faculty and students, as criteria for determining appropriate action.

RMC seeks to make newly acquired materials available to the public as quickly as possible. Incoming items and collections are cataloged or accessioned upon acquisition. Staff from the Library’s Technical Services unit order, receive, and catalog RMC’s rare books, maps, and other printed items, as well as audiovisual materials and bound manuscripts. RMC’s technical processing staff accession, organize, and describe manuscript and archival collections, creating finding aids encoded for online access. Catalogers and processors follow national standards promulgated by the American Library Association, its Rare Books and Manuscripts Section, and the Society of American Archivists. Processing levels are determined on a collection by collection basis, based on a professional assessment of a collection’s value, scarcity, importance, and expected use.

The catalog records for RMC materials are accessible through the Library’s online catalog and through the international database OCLC WorldCat. Finding aids are accessible through the RMC Web site, through the corresponding catalog records in the Library’s online catalog, and via Internet search engines.

Preservation of rare and unique materials is crucial to the mission of RMC. The collection is non-circulating and is maintained in closed stacks. The majority of the collection is housed in the Carl A. Kroch Library, a state-of-the-art special collections facility opened in 1992. The Kroch Library features a temperature and humidity controlled environment and fire detection and suppression systems. Some collection materials are maintained at Cornell Library’s Annex facilities under similar security and climate conditions. RMC materials housed at the Library Annex circulate only back to RMC’s reading room. RMC collections receive conservation care as needed by specialists in Cornell Library’s Department of Preservation and Collection Maintenance.

RMC’s materials are made available in the Carl A. Kroch Library to all researchers on equal terms. Researchers include faculty, staff, graduate students, and undergraduate students from Cornell and other institutions; independent scholars; and the general public. Individuals under age sixteen may use selected materials in the RMC Reading Room when accompanied by a parent or guardian.

All researchers must produce photo identification (such as University I.D. card, driver’s license or passport) and must fill out or have on file a current reader registration form.

Requests to view materials are subject to appropriate care and handling and donor requirements. Some materials require an advance appointment, and all researchers visiting Cornell from out-of-town are urged to contact in advance.

RMC may be unable to fulfill some off-campus reference or reproduction requests during periods when demand for service exceeds available resources. In such instances, Cornell University’s community will receive priority service. Research fees for off-site users may apply.

RMC will consider requests to digitize, photocopy, or lend materials needed by other institutions or individuals, subject to specific limitations imposed by available resources, the terms of acquisition, and subject to RMC’s reproduction, conservation, Interlibrary loan, and security policies. More information is available on our research services page.

RMC promotes the use and visibility of its collections through instruction and outreach programs. These programs include: regular semester and summer classes, public lectures, class presentations, exhibitions, tours, Web sites, on-site and electronic reference services, print publications, and communication of significant acquisitions to the University and relevant scholarly communities.

Materials from RMC’s collections are regularly featured in exhibitions installed in the Library’s exhibition galleries. Most exhibitions are also accessible online. RMC will evaluate requests to loan materials for exhibition at other institutions when the policies and facilities of those institutions meet accepted national exhibition loan standards, and when available resources allow. RMC also borrows materials for exhibition from other institutional and private collections as appropriate.

This policy is designed to meet the goals of Cornell University Library and RMC. This policy will be periodically reviewed, evaluated, and changed as necessary to meet these goals. The sources for review and revision will include information supplied by Cornell Library annual reports, user surveys, Library and University budget information, faculty and graduate student interviews, changes in Cornell University’s academic programming, and other relevant information.

Policy on Transfer of General Collection Materials

Cornell University Library’s policy on the transfer of materials to special collections is adapted from national guidelines developed by the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association: Guidelines on the Selection of General Collection Materials for Transfer to Special Collections. 2nd Edition (Rev), 1999.

Research universities carry significant responsibilities for preserving the printed heritage under their care. Cornell University Library takes this responsibility seriously, and is committed to providing adequate protection and security for all its historic materials.

Virtually all academic libraries acquire books and documents, which, with time, and regardless of intention, become rare. These materials acquire cultural and historical value, and sometimes a significant financial value in the marketplace, as well.

This policy will guide Cornell library staff in their responsibility to identify rare and valuable materials in general and open stack collections and to arrange for their transfer to the greater security of special collections.

As appropriate, library units should inventory their general collections to identify materials appropriate for transfer to a special collections facility.

Rare material also should be identified for transfer during routine handling and review as part of the following library functions: acquisition; gifts and exchange; cataloging and retrospective conversion; preservation and conservation; duplication; circulation; inventorying and shelfreading; interlibrary loan; preparation of exhibitions; weeding; searching of dealer catalogs. Transfer candidates identified during these functions will be sent to special collections for review by knowledgeable staff.

Cornell Library uses the following criteria to identify general collections material appropriate for transfer to special collections:

  1. Age
    All materials printed before 1865, regardless of form or condition, must be provided with secure, climate-controlled storage and monitored reading room access.In addition, materials printed after 1865 will be considered for transfer if any of the following criteria are met:
  2. Artifactual Characteristics
    Books may possess intellectual value, artifactual value, or both. Items with artifactual value include:
    1. fine bindings;
    2. books with valuable prints or original photographs
    3. publishers’ bindings up to 1920;
    4. extra-illustrated volumes;
    5. books with significant provenance (e.g., signed by the author);
    6. books with decorated endpapers;
    7. fine printing;
    8. printing on vellum or highly unusual paper;
    9. volumes or portfolios containing unbound plates;
    10. books with valuable maps or plates;
    11. broadsides, posters and printed ephemera;
    12. books by local authors of particular note;
    13. material requiring security (e.g., books in unusual formats, erotica or materials that are difficult to replace)
    14. miniature books (10 centimeters or smaller)
    15. 20th century literary works with intact dust wrappers.
  3. Condition
    Age itself often will determine whether a book is “rare,” while condition is usually more important in judging more recent material. All values of the book–scholarly, artifactual, bibliographical, and market–may be greatly affected by condition. Copies that are badly worn, much repaired or rebound, are not generally included in rare book collections, unless the age of the material preempts condition as a criterion. The durability of most documents produced since the mid-nineteenth century has declined drastically. It is now increasingly difficult to locate even representative examples of many nineteenth- and twentieth-century printing and binding processes in fine original condition. So many volumes have required rebinding, for example, that the richness of the original decorative art applied to bindings and printed endpapers is increasingly difficult to find and study. Dust jackets frequently contain important information (e.g., text, illustrative design, and price), and their presence greatly affects both the market and research value of 20th century books.
  4. Bibliographical, Research or Market Value
    The rarity or importance of individual books is not always self-evident. Some books, for example, were produced in circumstances which virtually guarantee their rarity (e.g. Confederate imprints). Factors affecting importance and rarity can include the following:
    1. desirability to collectors and the antiquarian book trade;
    2. intrinsic or extrinsic evidence of censorship or repression;
    3. seminal nature or importance to a particular field of study or genre of literature;
    4. restricted or limited publication;
    5. cost of acquisition.

National Policy Documents

There are two major professional organizations concerned with the activities of rare book and manuscript repositories in the US: The Society of American Archivists, and the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries, American Library Association.

Cornell Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections develops its policies and procedures in accordance with the recommended professional guidelines published by these organizations.

Relevant national policy documents are listed here: