Special Collections: What We Collect

CMU Special Collections acquires books, manuscripts, and artifacts that document the history of science and technology; mechanical, symbolic, and digital computing; cryptology; book history and design; and early English literature. Our collection development strategy is keyed to these collecting priorities and themes, but we consider gifts in other fields on a case-by-case basis. Whether by purchase, transfer, or gift, the following criteria guide our acquisitions decision making:


Relevance to Areas of Collecting Focus

Special Collections acquires materials in existing and developing areas of collections strength. These include:

  • The history of science, technology, information, robots and automata, and computing, from the Renaissance to the present
  • Cryptology, steganography, and cryptanalysis
  • Early Shakespeare editions
  • The history of the book, typography, and the history of printing
  • Portable scientific, cryptographic, and computing instruments

In each of these areas, Special Collections seeks to diversify and nuance existing holdings and to reimagine traditional criteria for special collections development for the 21st century and after. In particular, we seek to acquire works in non-western languages, works by women, and works from cultures and voices that remain underrepresented in rare book collections in the United States.



As Carnegie Mellon University’s dedicated repository for rare, unique, and fragile material culture, Special Collections seeks to retain books, manuscripts, and artifacts that are uncommon and at risk of neglect or loss. Rarity does not equate with age or fragility, however; old books are often rare, but rare books need not be old. For example, Special Collections holds a growing collection of early periodicals in computer science, some of which date to the 1960s, or later. Many of these periodicals are subject to discard (‘weeding’) and deaccessioning via sale or recycling at other institutions. Originally produced in small print runs with limited subscribers, these periodicals are consequently quite rare, even if they are of a relatively recent date.

The rarity of a book can be determined by consulting online union catalogs (e.g. WorldCat) or short title catalogs and bibliographic censuses. These resources can help in determining how many libraries hold a particular title. Keep in mind, however, that online holdings data are often incomplete and notoriously inaccurate; many copies remain unrecorded. Special Collections can assist in determining the rarity of a particular object or title.


Market Value

The market value of books can be fickle and difficult to determine. A recent price realized at auction for a comparable copy of a particular book is of occasional use in determining that book’s current market value. Prices for books listed online are sometimes unrealistically inflated. By law, CMU Libraries staff cannot appraise the financial value of a gift or collection; nor can CMU Libraries staff recommend an appraiser.

To find a professional appraiser, consult the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America directory. See also American Book Prices Current (ABPC), an industry standard resource that lists book prices realized at auction and in the antiquarian book trade from 1975 to the present. Access to ABPC requires a subscription.


Bibliographic & Research Value

Special Collections strives to gather unusual, unique, or imperiled books and objects that carry knowledge and evidence unavailable in other forms of media. This uniqueness can take many forms, and often transcends rarity and monetary value: for example, Special Collections holds a small collection of books from Herbert A. Simon’s working library. These otherwise inconspicuous and unprepossessing titles afford immense research value as a record of book use and ownership by a Turing Award- and Nobel Prize-winning innovator in the fields of artificial intelligence and cognitive science. This is an example of otherwise mundane objects taking on profound importance by way of their provenance.

Bibliographic and research value are not always apparent; Special Collections staff can assist in determining what makes a book or object worth preserving.



CMU Libraries houses a small collection of art, most of which falls into the categories listed below. These categories represent the scope of the Libraries’ strategy for acquiring and curating two- and three-dimensional works of art. They reflect Special Collections’ interest in documenting the history of computing and the University Archives’ commitment to documenting the work and creative output of the CMU community.

  • Algorithmic, or computer-generated art
  • Works by artists of note that have attended or taught at CMU
  • Works that depict CMU’s campus or portray members of the CMU community
  • Works that document the city of Pittsburgh or its industry

The Libraries is not actively acquiring works of art at this time. Donations will be considered on a case by case basis, though most offered donations must be declined due to space and operational constraints.


Materials Special Collections Generally Does Not Accept

  • Items already held (duplicates)
  • Books, art and objects outside current areas of collecting focus
  • Facsimiles or reproductions, unless they serve a specific and otherwise unfulfilled curricular need
  • Items without clear title or with dubious provenance


Potential & Existing Donors

The Curator of Special Collections works with donors and booksellers to responsibly and ethically transfer gifted or purchased materials to Carnegie Mellon University Libraries. If offered materials do not fit with an active area of collecting focus, the Curator of Special Collections can assist donors in finding an alternative repository or donee. Before sending materials to Special Collections, donors should contact the Curator of Special Collections, Sam Lemley, to determine any conditions and arrangements attending their transfer and receipt.


Conditions Governing Acquisitions

  • All acquisitions will be documented and governed by a signed Deed of Gift or Sales Invoice. Sellers and Donors will determine the form of these agreements in advance of transfer and in consultation with the Curator of Special Collections.
  • All acquisitions must be adequately described with clear title and, as far as possible, documented provenance. Item descriptions may take the form of an inventory, bookseller’s catalog description, or short title list. The Curator of Special Collections may also elect to inspect gifted or purchased materials before finalizing the Sales Invoice or Deed of Gift.
  • Materials that require restrictions on research access and/or reproduction, either to protect the privacy of the donor or the legal rights of third parties, must be identified in advance of acquisition or donation. In exceptional cases, Special Collections may limit access to donated materials for a set period of time. Any restrictions regarding access to donated materials will be laid out in the Deed of Gift.
  • Before transfer to Special Collections, donors and sellers will stabilize, prepare, and pack materials for transit.
  • Carnegie Mellon University Libraries will provide a letter of receipt that may be used by donors for tax purposes.
  • All acquisitions will be cataloged and described after receipt. The resulting descriptions and catalog records will be freely available and accessible online via the Carnegie Mellon University Libraries catalog: http://search.library.cmu.edu


Tax Deductions

The IRS requires a formal appraisal of gifts valued over $5,000 in order for the gift to be eligible for tax deductions. The appraisal must be completed within sixty days before or after the date on which the Deed of Gift is signed. To apply for a federal tax deduction, the donor must also complete and file IRS Form 8283. A copy of the appraisal and IRS Form 8283 should be submitted to the Curator of Special Collections or a representative of Carnegie Mellon University Libraries with a description of the gift and a copy of the signed deed. Note that irrespective of the gift’s value, IRS Form 8283 is required to qualify for a tax deduction. Form 8283 can be found online.

By law, CMU Libraries staff cannot provide tax or legal advice or appraise the financial value of a gift or collection; nor can CMU Libraries staff recommend an appraiser. For appraisals documenting charitable contributions, the appraiser cannot be the dealer who sold the material(s) to the donor. For a list of regional appraisers, see the directory of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA).



Special Collections holdings are periodically reviewed for materials eligible for deaccessioning. These reviews adhere to best practices, as outlined in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section’s Code of Ethics, and the Society of American Archivists’ Guidelines for Reappraisal and Deaccessioning. In general, materials selected for separation include 1) Duplicates, 2) Materials outside of collecting priorities, or 3) Materials that otherwise do not fit with the criteria listed above.

When applicable, the decision to deaccession materials is guided by legal or donor restrictions. Deaccessioned materials are discarded, returned to the donor, sold, or transferred to another institutional repository. Candidates for deaccession are always reviewed and approved by the Curator of Special Collections and the Dean of Libraries.


Internal Transfers to Special Collections

Materials in the Libraries’ circulating and offsite collections are occasionally selected for transfer to Special Collections. This process is guided by the same criteria governing external acquisitions and donations (i.e., Relevance to Areas of Collecting Focus, Rarity, and Market Value). The transfer of materials to Special Collections should adhere to professional best practices, as outlined in the ACRL’s Guidelines on the Selection and Transfer of Materials from General Collections to Special Collections.

Candidate materials for transfer to Special Collections may be identified and referred to the Curator of Special Collections by anyone. The Curator will review and inspect proposed transfers to evaluate for condition and suitability for the collection.