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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 University of Wisconsin-Madison libraries because those books require special handling. Many books published before 1800, for example, are automatically transferred to Special Collections.
The Rare Book Department, as it was first known, was housed on the 4th floor of the newly constructed Memorial Library opened in the early 1950s. The Department was subsequently renamed the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections and then the Department of Special Collections, which moved into the newly constructed 8th and 9th floors of Memorial Library in 1990.