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Literary Research in Special Collections

This guide provides an introduction to conducting literary research using materials in Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Maryland Libraries.

Using Rare Books in Literary Research

Rare books are a valuable part of literary research. The Rare Books and Special Collection book collections in Special Collections and University Archives include a wide variety of authors and subjects, ranging from early printed literature to modern first editions. Many works of literature are printed in multiple editions which can vary in both text and the visual appearance of the book. Examining the physical characteristics of a book in addition to the text can be a useful strategy for literary research.

Below are some helpful tips for using rare books in your literary research:

  • Examining a first edition or early printing of a work of literature allows one to see the book as intended by the author/printer/publisher and as the text appeared to contemporary audiences when it was published.  Researchers can examine firsthand the illustrations, type, paper, binding, dust jacket, and other material features of the book. Some questions to ask:
    • Do you  notice any unusual spelling, punctuation, lettering, or markings in the text? What is the language? What is the size of the lettering? Is there more than one font? Is there anything interesting to note about the layout of the text? 
    • What information can you find on the title page? Where was it published and by whom? Are there any prefatory materials? Is there a table of context or index?
    • What type of illustrations are present? What is their location, style, and relationship to the text? What purpose do the illustrations serve?
    • What is the size of the book? What does the binding look like? What does the paper feel like? 
    • Do these observations provide any clues to the intended audience of the book? 

  • Looking at subsequent printings and editions of a work can establish the transmission of the text after publication. It can also give you clues about the audiences the book was intended for, as this can change over time. Some questions to ask:
    • Are there any changes in the appearance or substance of the text? 
    • Are there any differences in the information on title page?
    • Is the appearance of the book different from earlier editions? Observe the size of the book, paper, type, material used on the binding, and other material aspects of the book.
    • What do these differences/similarities tell you about the work?

  • Rare Books also have markings from previous owners, booksellers, and readers that can provide information to researchers about how a book was used over time.
    • Inscriptions by the author or notable owners of a book can establish connections to the author or other notable persons.
    • Annotations in the book by the author can add insight on the author's intentions/attitudes. 
    • Annotations by others throughout the text may also provide useful information.

Contact us with any questions about using rare book collections in Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Maryland.

Searching Rare Books at UMD

Use the University of Maryland classic catalog to search for titles in the rare book collection by date of publication, author, or keyword. Select Advanced Search and select Marylandia and Rare Books to search the rare book collection in Special Collections and University Archives.  To narrow search results enter dates, language, or author if known.

Contact us with any questions about locating items in the rare book collections in Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Maryland.

All rare books can be requested online and viewed in the Maryland Room, located in Hornbake Library at the University of Maryland College Park. For more information about requesting rare books, visit the guide to Using Special Collections and University Archives.