Thanks to a century and a half of collecting, the library is home to tens of thousands of historic books, manuscripts, photographs, ephemera, maps and other artifacts representing over four thousand years of human history and culture from around the world.
You can learn more about our collections in the sections below, but we encourage you to contact us and set up a visit, whether you're researching a topic for a class, publication or personal interest. Some of our materials are also available online. Many of our archival collections are described in finding aids available via RIAMCO (RI Archival and Manuscript Collections Online).
The Rhode Island Collections at PPL are a research collection and community resource of materials by, for and about Rhode Island and its people. (More about the RI Collections)
The library has been building its collection on the history of printing since 1910. It is now one of the most important typographical collections in the country. (More information about the Updike Collection)
Based on a group of whaling logbooks assembled by Paul C. Nicholson, the Nicholson Whaling Collection is now home to nearlyi 800 logbooks, documenting over 1,000 voyages. (More information about the Nicholson Collection)
The Caleb Fiske Harris Collection on the Civil War and Slavery was the first collection acquired by Providence Public Library. It was purchased for $2,000 in 1884, not long after the Library was founded, from the estate of Mr. Harris, a Providence book collector. A large portion of the money used to purchase the collection was received through a fund originally set up to purchase books for soldiers at the Portsmouth Grove Hospital, which was closed before the money could be used. Sidney S. Rider, a Providence publisher and bookseller, handled the sale of the collection.
Several important gifts of books on the Civil War were later added to the collection, and today it is the Library’s largest special collection. It contains more than 10,000 books, pamphlets, manuscripts, ephemera and newspapers. There are hundreds of 18th century pamphlets relating to slavery worldwide; there is a large collection of editions and translations of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, together with other books by and about her. The collection also contains a number of letters written home by Rhode Island soldiers who served in the Civil War.
The Haynes Checkers Collection
The Hanes Checkers Collection came to the Library by bequest in 1923. Mr. Edward B. Hanes of Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, formed one of the largest collections of books on checkers ever assembled. There are some 560 volumes in the collection, the earliest of which is dated 1572. The collection contains books on checkers in many languages, a number of scarce periodicals and several scrapbooks of newspaper clippings of checkers games.
The Barney Whist Collection
A collection of 500 books on whist, the card game from which bridge evolved, was given to the Library in 1917 by the widow of Mr. Walter Hammond Barney, a lawyer and avid whist player. Mr. Barney participated in local and national whist tournaments, and his collection contains many reports of these tournaments as well as a few obscure whist periodicals. The collection is thought to be the only one of its kind in America.
In the 1950s, Miss Edith Wetmore, of Newport, gave the Library her collection of some 1,850 early children’s books in 20 languages. Among the highlights of the collection are a 15th century manuscript written in Germany and illustrated with many small illustrations relating to the Bible, a unique copy of a Latin grammar printed in 1499, and the rare first edition, first issue, of Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
During the same period Miss Wetmore also gave the Library a collection of some 400 illustrated books, a collection of books designed by Bruce Rogers and a collection of books printed at the Peter Pauper Press. The books designed by Bruce Rogers and the Peter Pauper Press books were added to the Updike Printing Collection. The collection of illustrated books is particularly strong in livres d’artistes, among which are books illustrated by Bonnard, Matisse, Picasso and Rouault, as well as others. Several of the books in this collection are beautifully bound. The collection also contains some fine examples of private press books printed by the Ashendene Press, the Golden Cockerell Press, the Cranach Presse of Weimar, Germany, and the Gregynog Press of Wales.
In 1896 Mr. Alfred M. Williams, editor of the Providence Journal and one of the Library’s trustees, bequeathed his entire estate to the Library. It included his personal library which was strong in Irish, Scottish and Celtic literature and folklore. The books on Irish literature and folklore were kept together as the Alfred M. Williams Collection on Irish Culture. In the 1950s another editor of the Providence Journal, Mr. George W. Potter, helped the Library obtain a number of valuable books, pamphlets and broadsides for the collection including the 1916 Easter Rising broadside Poblacht na h Eireann, a declaration of independence that is one of the most important documents in Irish history. After Mr. Potter’s death, the Irish collection was renamed The George W. Potter and Alfred M. Williams Memorial Collection on Irish Culture. Later, a small endowment was provided for the collection by Dr. Philip Deery.
The collection is particularly strong in Irish poetry of the late 19th century and Irish broadside ballads of the same period. In 1996 the Library published a catalog of the highlights of the collection, The Irish Literary Renaissance in Providence.
A local magician, John H. Percival, gave his collection of books on magic to the Library in 1970, after which the Library had a week-long celebration honoring him for his gift. There are some 1,200 books and pamphlets in the collection, as well as several sets of periodicals. A few of the books, including ones by Blackstone and Houdini, are inscribed to Mr. Percival by their authors.
John H. Percival was born in East Providence and developed an interest in the magical arts after seeing a magic show when he was a child. From the age of eight until his death at eighty-six, Percival remained active as an amateur magician, using the pseudonyms ‘Mysterious John’ or ‘Rene’ when he performed. The first trick Percival learned involved breaking a matchstick in two, wrapping the pieces inside a handkerchief and removing the matchstick whole at the conclusion of the trick. When not engaged at his day job with the New England Telephone Company Percival attended performances and magicians’ conventions, where he became acquainted with many 20th century magicians, including Harry Blackstone, Howard Thurston and Harry Houdini.
Percival acted as a ‘stooge’ for Houdini — a plant in the audience during the latter’s performance — during a few shows the legendary magician performed in Providence. When Houdini called upon an audience member to bring him a pair of handcuffs from which to escape it was Percival who provided the special cuffs. He also inspected the tank used by Houdini in his escape from the Chinese Water Torture Cell. In a 1963 interview with M-U-M, Percival remarked that he and Houdini got into an argument over the examination of the front bars of the tank, though whether this was a genuine tiff or merely acting for the benefit of the audience is not clear.
Muse, Ray. “I Stooged for Houdini: As Related by John Percival to Ray Muse.” Magic Unity Might 53, 5 (1963): 232.
“John Percival, 86; Amateur Magician.” (Obituary)
“Percival the Great.” Telephone Topics 46, 10 (1953): 13-37
The Nickerson Architectural Collection began with the gift, in 1908, of the private library of the Providence architect Edward Irving Nickerson, who was also active as a trustee of the Providence Public Library from 1878 to 1908. The collection was given by Lyra Brown Nickerson as a memorial to her father, and was accompanied by an endowment that has allowed the library to add to the collection in the years since.
The collection comprises books on architecture dating from the 1700s to the twentienth century, including titles by Piranesi, Palladio, Vitruvius, Owen Jones, Inigo Jones and others. There are also many illustrated works relating to travel, costume and design.
Alfred S. Brownell Collection on Maritime History consists of 320 printed books, 550 blueprints and technical drawings, several prints and photographs and most notably, the 11 ship models of Atlantic Coast fishing vessels largely made by Mr. Brownell, which are displayed in the library’s Ship Room. Mr. Brownell gave his collection of ship models during the 1950s and the remainder of the Maritime history collection was presented to Providence Public Library in 1963. The collection is strong in books on ship model building and naval architecture, and there are also a number of scarce, early books on rigging and artillery as well as dictionaries of nautical terms.
The collection includes pamphlets, posters and other ephemera relating to both World War I and World War II. Many of the posters are from the collection of Louis C. Huntoon.
The books in this catch-all collection were either culled from the circulating collection over the years (we began circulating books in 1878), given to the Library by individual donors, or purchased for general interest and reference. Major themes include American history, voyages and travels, exploration, natural history, religion and theology, and American and English literature.