Before the College had a building or a faculty, it had a collection of books given as part of the first subscription for the College's benefit shortly after its chartering in 1794. Some five hundred volumes were on hand in 1802 for the opening classes. Many of these books form the core of our American Imprints collection.
Comprising twenty-seven hundred volumes printed before 1821 in what is now the United States, these works cover a range of subjects and are an invaluable resource on the history of the colonies and country. Included in this collection are the first and second editions of John Eliot's famous Indian Bible . The first edition, 1663, is the Library's earliest American imprint. Other important works are: first editions of several Charles Brockden Brown titles; Isaiah Thomas's 1810 History of Printing in America, presented by the author to Bowdoin College; and An Elementary Treatise on Mineralogy and Geology by Bowdoin professor Parker Cleaveland. Printed in 1816, the latter is the first American work on mineralogy and geology.
Among several broadsides in this collection are a proclamation issued by Governor James Bowdoin of Massachusetts in 1787 concerning Shays's Rebellion and an 1815 notice of the peace treaty ending the War of 1812.
In 1811, James Bowdoin III bequeathed his library to the College. One of the very few remaining late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century private American libraries, it is remarkably intact. Containing 783 titles in 2,048 volumes, with an additional 1,200 or so American, British, and French pamphlets, it was described in the July 1812 issue of The General Repository and Review, Cambridge, Massachusetts: "Of many of the books whose titles are given, a few copies, or perhaps in some instances but the single copy ... can be found in our country ...." William Jenks, in his 1812 eulogy to James Bowdoin, states that the College's library "probably ranks now the third among those, which supply the Colleges of New England ...."
The collection is rich in classical and modern literature, scientific works, political and economic tracts, agricultural treatises, histories, and reference works. Approximately one-half of the titles are French, including important works of the French Revolutionary period, such as the Collection complète des Tableaux historiques de la Révolution française and the Gazette nationale, ou le Moniteur universel, 1789-1807. Kenneth E. Carpenter (Bowd. 1958), in his essay for The Legacy of James Bowdoin III (Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 1994), entitled "James Bowdoin III as Library Builder," notes on page 111 that "even Harvard had no volume of the Moniteur before 1840, and there is still recorded in America but one other copy of the Tableaux." Diderot's great work of the Enlightenment, the Encyclopèdie is represented by the Geneva edition of 1777. Complementing this material is the collection of pamphlets of the French Revolutionary era.
Shelved with James Bowdoin's bequest are 359 titles in 561 volumes belonging to his father, Governor Bowdoin, for whom the College was named. Governor Bowdoin had bequeathed his library to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of which he was a founding member. In 1947, the Academy decided to dissolve its library, placing at the College on permanent loan those volumes from the Governor which could still be identified. Among them are Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana, 1702, and the 1739 edition of Richard Bradley's A Philosophical Account of the Works of Nature with its wonderful botanical and zoological illustrations.
A small collection of Bowdoin family documents is also available.
In 1820 more than five hundred volumes were presented to the College by the Boston collector, founding member of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and early member of the American Antiquarian Society, Thomas Wallcut (1758-1840). They came to the College through the efforts of President William Allen, who assisted in Wallcut's selection of the volumes while he was president of the short-lived Dartmouth University. Many of the volumes were British imprints and form the core of our British imprints collection, consisting of books printed in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland before 1701, approximately eight hundred titles in five hundred volumes.
Of particular importance is Wallcut's copy of Synodicon in Gallia Reformata, London, 1692, edited by John Quick, with his presentation inscription to Increase Mather and containing Mather's marginal and other notes. Non-Wallcut items of note are the second and fourth folio editions of Shakespeare's collected plays, London, 1632 and 1685 respectively; Richard Hakluyt's The Principall Navigations ... of the English Nation, 1589; both 1611 printings of the authorized or King James translation of the Bible; and the Book of Common Prayer, London, 1680, sumptuously bound by Samuel Mearne, binder to King Charles II, with crowned monograms of Charles II. The Shakespeare folios and the two Bibles are from the library of Professor Henry Johnson (Bowd.1874), and were presented by his daughter and son-in-law, Helen Johnson Chase and Professor Stanley Perkins Chase (Bowd.1905). John C. Pickard (Bowd. 1922) gave the Book of Common Prayer.
More than four hundred books and pamphlets printed in the state of Maine between 1820 and 1835 are gathered together as a collection of the first fifteen years of true Maine imprints. Pre-statehood imprints are interfiled with the American Imprints collection. Many are works by men associated with Bowdoin, including those produced by Joseph Griffin, printer to the College and owner of the first press in Brunswick. Among the works are the first printing of the State's Constitution, Moses Greenleaf's 1829 Survey of the State of Maine, and Joseph Williamson's 1832 History of the State of Maine.
There are fifteen volumes dated between 1478 and 1500 in Special Collections. Among them are volumes two and four in one volume (imperfect) of the 1485 printing and volume four of the 1487 printing of the Bible with the commentary or "Postillis" of Nicholas of Lyra, printed by Anton Koberger in Nuremberg; and the Purgatorio of Dante's La Commedia printed at Florence in 1481 by Nicolaus Laurentii. Individual incunable leaves include one from the first edition of the Liber Cronicarum, or Nuremberg Chronicle, and one from the second German edition; a leaf-book containing a leaf from the pirated Augsburg Latin edition of 1497; and the five portfolios of 280 original leaves of fifteenth-century printed books compiled by Konrad Haebler.