The Rare Book Collection exists to acquire, arrange, describe, preserve, and make available books of enduring value, both for intellectual content and as historical artifacts, to support the research needs of scholars at Dumbarton Oaks and beyond. It is the repository for Dumbarton Oaks’ holdings of rare books, both antiquarian and modern.
The Collection maintains these research materials because they are best managed separately from the general collections given their subject area, rare or unique qualities, source, physical condition, or form. It has the responsibility to protect materials in its care from damage due to misuse, climatic conditions, pests or other agents of destruction, and from problems inherent in the volumes themselves. There is an active program of preservation and conservation. Additionally, it is engaged in the digitization of selected holdings to increase use and enhance access.
The Rare Book Collection was begun by Mildred Bliss and reflects the areas of specialized research conducted at Dumbarton Oaks. The holdings comprise rare and unique materials acquired by Mrs. Bliss and subsequently by directors of studies and librarians. The collecting interests and the extent of collecting activity fluctuate over time as the studies programs develop and change. An example of this is the field of Chinese gardens where acquisitions have increased in the 21st century. To the extent possible, collecting efforts anticipate future research needs and evolution of the fields.
The Rare Book Collection holds manuscripts, rare books, prints, drawings, ephemeral print materials, photographic collections. Areas of strength include all aspects of the history of gardens, from theory and practice of design to garden views and plant material; floras; herbals; botanical illustration. The holdings related to Byzantine Studies include facsimiles of Byzantine manuscripts, illustrated studies of Byzantine art and architecture, early travelers' accounts, liturgical books, and early printed books that contain editio princeps or historically important studies of Byzantine texts. The rare materials supporting Pre-Columbian Studies cover the art and archaeology of the pre-contact peoples of Mesoamerica, lower Central America, and Andean South America. Some highlights are the archaeological accounts of the 19th and early 20th centuries; grammars, vocabularies, confessionals, and liturgies used by the Spanish priests in the early colonial period in the Americas; and facsimiles of Mesoamerican codices.