About the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division

The Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division collects, preserves, and makes available for research purposes rare, unique, and primary materials that document the history and culture of people of African descent throughout the world, with a concentration on the Americas and the Caribbean.

The division's holdings include personal papers, records of organizations and institutions, subject or thematic collections, literary and scholarly typescripts and playscripts, sheet music, broadsides, programs and playbills, ephemera, and rare books. Materials are collected in most languages, although the bulk of the holdings are in English, French, and Spanish. In addition, the division is responsible for the records of the Center.

The division's manuscript holdings, including some in microform, cover the history, literature, politics, and culture of people of African descent in the Americas, Africa, and England, primarily in the twentieth century. Subject emphasis includes: the performing and visual arts; women in the United States; eighteenth and nineteenth century Haitian history; African American religion; the social, cultural, and political history of Harlem; twentieth century writers from the United States and the Caribbean; education in Africa and the United States; civil rights organizations and activities; manuscripts and research files of scholars and intellectuals; and papers and records of individuals and organizations documenting radical political movements.

The Literary and Scholarly Typescripts Collection covers a wide range of subjects and literary genres, as well as historical, sociological, and anthropological works, dating primarily from the early twentieth century. Included are manuscripts of books, articles, essays, short stories, poetry, speeches, and scholarly papers. The playscripts collection consists of published and unpublished plays, and includes plays by important Black playwrights.

The sheet music collection strengths lie in spirituals, jazz from the 1930s and 1940s period, and popular songs. The collection contains vocal and instrumental compositions and includes the following genres: spirituals, secular folk songs, ragtime, blues, jazz, gospel, popular songs, show tunes and European classical music by composers of African descent. Geographic coverage is primarily for the United States, the Caribbean and Africa.

The broadsides, programs, and playbills collections primarily document theatrical, cultural, social, and political events in the United States from the late nineteenth century to the present.

Subject and genre strength for the rare book collection include slavery and anti-slavery in the United States; fiction; travel narratives in the Americas and Africa; history of Blacks in the United States and Caribbean; biography, history, literature, religion, and poetry. The rare book holdings date from the late sixteenth through the twentieth centuries, although the bulk of the titles are pre-1865 imprints. Languages represented in the collection are primarily English, French, Spanish, Dutch, German, and Latin. In addition, the collection has one of the finest representative collections of works by authors of the Harlem Renaissance, nineteenth century Black women authors, and monographs published during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries by and about Black people. The collection contains first, early, and variant editions by Black authors up to 1901 and prize-winning titles by Black authors up to the present.

Rules for Use of the Collection

Registration is required for consultation of materials in the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division: 

  • Applicant shall create a Special Collections account.
  • Applicant shall present a NYPL Library card.
  • Applicant shall be required to show valid photo identification (e.g., driver's license, student or employee identification, passport) at the time of their first visit.

Researchers must request an onsite appointment at least 7 days in advance. Final determination regarding access to materials is the responsibility of the staff, in consultation with the researcher, and the rules of the division.

Researchers are required to secure coats, briefcases, parcels, packages, bags, umbrellas, and other personal belongings in lockers provided for this purpose.  Approved materials needed to conduct research may be brought to the division. A list of approved items will be provided in the researcher's confirmation email.

Consult schedule for reading room hours.