Man turning pages of a very large and old book in order to show it to viewers. They are in the rare books room.

Rare Books, Maps, and Manuscripts

Rare Books

While there are surprising examples of early works on many subjects in the Athenaeum, researchers should expect to find depth in certain specific subject areas.

  • Early American history is a particular strength with resources in the Library’s extraordinary collections
  • Early American imprints, 18th and 19th century tracts
  • Early United States government documents
  • Early American broadsides, publications in Native American languages
  • Early Boston newspapers, imprints of the Confederate States of America
  • Portions of the personal libraries of Cardinal Cheverus, Henry Knox, and George Washington.

The library also houses:

  • The King’s Chapel Collection of mostly 17th century theological works
  • The Brimmer Collection of 18th and early 19th century European books on the fine arts
  • The Groome Gypsy Collection, the Danforth Alchemy Collection
  • The Merrymount Press Collection

We have author’s collections featuring the works of Lord Byron, John Masefield, T. S. Eliot, and John Fowles, and an extensive collection on the art of the book including bookbinding, fine printing, and contemporary artists’ books.


The map collection contains thousands of sheet maps, plans, charts, and more than 600 bound atlases, ranging from the fifteenth to the twenty-first centuries in date. After more than 200 years of growth, the map collection juxtaposes common maps with items of great rarity.

One of the earliest maps in the collection is the imaginative chart of the world published in the 1493 Latin edition of the Nuremberg Chronicle. The rarest is possibly the 1814 manuscript Map of Part of the Continent of North America as Corrected by the Celestial Observations of Messrs. Lewis & Clark During their Tour of Discoveries.

The atlas collection is particularly strong in nineteenth and twentieth century material, but also includes Ptolemy’s Geographica (1584), two editions of the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1579 and 1603) by Abraham Ortelius, and the world atlas of Mercator/Hondius, which gradually superseded the Ortelius Theatrum.

Among widely used chart books of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the English Pilot (1689-1794), of which the Athenæum owns several copies, including a unique copy of the 1707 edition, and the Atlantic Neptune by J. F. W. Des Barres. There are also atlases by Visscher, de Ram, Allard, Blaeu, and de Bry here, as well as extensive holdings in nineteenth- and early twentieth- century city and county atlases concentrating on the Boston area.


The Athenaeum’s collection of manuscripts grew steadily from the founding of the institution, but it was not until the stewardship of Librarian Charles Knowles Bolton (ca. 1900) that efforts were first made to develop and organize this material.

The collection includes personal and family papers, genealogical records, organizational and business records, literary manuscripts and sketchbooks, as well as merchants’ records and ships’ logbooks.

Significant manuscripts in the collection include:

  • Papers of Athenaeum Trustee Samuel Eliot
  • Revolutionary War-era papers of Ezekiel Price
  • William Tudor papers
  • Papers of Commodore Isaac Hull
  • Papers of architects Charles Bulfinch, Alexander Parris, George Minot Dexter, Nathaniel Bradlee, John H. Sturgis, Ogden Codman, and Richard Clipston Sturgis.

Also in the collection are artists’ papers, such as those of Amasa Hewins, Isaac Sprague, Cephas Thompson, Cecilia Beaux, Francesca Alexander, and John Singer Sargent, and papers of merchant John Perkins Cushing, African American lawyer and abolitionist, Robert Morris, and showmen P.T. Barnum and Moses Kimball.

Corporate collections include the records of the Provident Institution for Savings, the second savings bank to be established in the United States, which came as a gift to the Athenaeum in 1993. The letters and diaries of Massachusetts soldiers in the Civil War are primary resources that complement the Library’s world-class printed and visual collections. Modern additions to the collection include the papers of historian Stewart Mitchell, and the papers of long-time Boston School Committee member Joseph Lee.

Accessing the Collection

The collection is open to all by appointment. It is recommended that researchers contact the Department in advance to make sure the requested item is available.

To schedule your appointment in our rare materials reading room or purchase scans/permissions please use our Special Collections Request system.