Academics Arts and Humanities

This library collection is something special

The University of Miami Libraries Special Collections contains invaluable items. Here's a look at a few of the rare gems.
University of Miami Special Collections
Five treasures of the University of Miami Libraries Special Collections. Photos: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

The University of Miami Otto G. Richter Library has over 4 million books, documents, and artifacts.

Its Special Collections contains valuable documents, books, and objects grouped into areas that highlight Florida, the Caribbean, zines and a myriad of other areas and creative expressions.

The University recently received the Jay I Kislak Collection of the Early Americas, Exploration, and Navigation, an impressive array of rare books, maps, manuscripts, historic documents, artifacts, and works of art related to history of the Western Hemisphere and the cultures of Florida, the Caribbean, and Mesoamerica, as well as the polar regions.

These collections offer students, faculty, and others infinite opportunities to delve into other worlds, other creative spaces, long-lost documents and more to enrich both their academic and personal lives.

The Special Collections is a treasure vault full of unexpected cultural and artistic surprises. A few of the rare finds are highlighted below.

The Jackie Gleason Collection

He was called “The Great One” for his larger than life persona and great sense of humor. The comedian and actor Jackie Gleason, best known for his role as Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners, lit up any room. But not many people knew that behind the jovial façade, Gleason was a serious and studious man who had a fascination with the occult and the supernatural, and life after death.

The death of his mother and other loved ones encouraged the comedian to explore ways to reach the departed. Gleason, who was self-taught, collected thousands of books, magazines, and documents about the afterlife. The Jackie Gleason Collection at the UM Libraries Special Collections contains a great number of these books and manuscripts, including The Encyclopedia of Death, Confessions of a Medium, and Life on Other Planets.

His widow donated the collection to the University after Gleason’s death in 1987.

Jackie Gleason
The comedian's fascination with the occult and paranormal is reflected in a collection of books housed at the Special Collections


Les Roses by Redoute

Exquisite velvety petals and thorny moss green stems grace the many pages of the precious book Les Roses by Pierre-Joseph Redoute. The meticulously engraved roses in this rare book chronicle the many varieties of that flower cultivated in the garden of Josephine, first wife to French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

Redoute, a famous French engraver, became Josephine’s friend and had rare access to her gardens. Josephine did not live to see the final product but the exquisite work now resides in UM’s Special Collections.

The book was donated to the University by an alumnus.

Le Roses
A rare book of the illustrations of Empress Josephine's garden roses.


Thomas Jefferson Letters – Florida Collection

In the Florida Collection, you can find several letters by the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. His letters show his educated, charming ways and the many facets of his rich life. Some dealt with the debts that came from building his estate Monticello and the ways he tried to reconcile those debts.

One prominent letter is found in the UM archives. In it, he welcomes the Spanish governor of Florida Juan Nepomuceno de Quesada in 1790. At the time, Jefferson was Secretary of State and he was carrying out affairs of the State but also forming necessary alliances.

Thomas Jefferson
Letters from The United State's third President, Thomas Jefferson.


Slave Ledger – New Grange Estate, Trinidad and Tobago Plantation (1824) – Caribbean Documents Collection

At first glance, it looks like a detailed accountant’s ledger. Each handwritten line describes an asset and a debit. Except the assets in this ledger are humans, slaves. “This has a visceral impact,” said Cristina Favretto, head of the Special Collections.

The 12-page parchment ledger from a Trinidad and Tobago plantation is in excellent condition. A prominent section describes the property by age, gender, color, and occupation, giving us a glimpse into a painful chapter in American history.

The cause of each slave’s death is also listed. Rose, a woman slave “died under the idea of Obiah,” a religious belief associated with the practice of Voodoo.      

Slave Register
A well-preserved slave ledger of a plantation in Trinidad & Tobago.


Artists’ books - Ruth and Marvin Sackner Collection

Some are fashioned out of loose papers, others are mini colorful canvases, yet others carry out a particular theme with intricate cutouts or block letters.

These are the artists’ books, from the Ruth and Marvin Sackner Collection.

Each book is one of a kind, created by hand and beautifully executed. Special Collections has about 600 of them. The collection also includes tomes of concrete poetry, books that take the shape of the theme they explore.

The collection is one of the most widely used by faculty and students of English literature. In many cases, working with these books inspires students to create their own works of art.    

“I like to ask the students to use their imagination as they look at these books,”’ said Favretto. “What was the artist thinking?”

Artists Books
There are over 600 artists' books housed in the Special Collection.