John Wilson Special Collections

801 SW 10th Avenue
Portland, OR 97205


Make an appointment

Appointments are required to view the special collections. Call 503.988.6287 or send an email to at least 24 hours in advance of your requested appointment time. Appointments are confirmed only after you have received a return email or phone call. A photo ID is required to use the special collections.

Please include the following details when emailing or calling:

  • Your name and contact information
  • What you would like to see
  • Your preferred time — the special collections are open Tuesday through Saturday during Central Library’s open hours


Central Library's John Wilson Special Collections houses the rare book and other special collections of Multnomah County Library in a controlled environment for the preservation of rare and historically significant materials. The original focus was a gift of the private collection of John Wilson, an avid book collector with broad interests. Wilson, born in Ireland, arrived in Oregon in 1849. In subsequent years, other gifts and materials culled from the library's collections have widened the scope and depth of the John Wilson Special Collections' holdings to more than 10,000 volumes.

Six core collections include those devoted to the book arts and the history of the book; children's literature; natural history; Pacific Northwest history; literature with particular strengths of Charles Dickens and D. H. Lawrence; and Native American literature.

The book arts collection includes manuscripts as early as the 13th century and as recent as just-published fine press editions by regional book artists. There are also numerous incunables (books printed before 1501), including books printed by some of the most well-known early printers, such as Aldus Manutius, Robert Estienne, Peter Schoeffer and two copies of Anton Koberger's Nuremberg Chronicle, long recognized as one of the earliest important illustrated printed books. Books noteworthy for their bindings, paper or typography; unusual books; and important books of the private press movement, including a large collection devoted to the Doves Press, and the only copy in the Northwest United States of the Kelmscott Chaucer (1896) are also here.

The extensive children's literature collection is devoted to 18th- through 20th-century books and contains first editions of Little Women; L. Frank Baum's Ozbooks; materials inscribed by important authors and illustrators, such as Tasha Tudor; and Beatrix Potter's scarce first illustrated book, A Happy Pair, held in only a dozen public collections worldwide.

The natural history collection contains a large collection of rose materials; 18th- and 19th-century fly-fishing texts; and ornithological titles, including a rare complete set of the massive, four-volume The Birds of America by John James Audubon, a double-elephant folio of hand-colored copperplate engravings (shown by appointment only, made in advance). Other important holdings from the collection include numerous editions of Audubon's books, as well as dozens of other 18th- and 19th-century hand-colored illustrated volumes of birds and mammals. The Thomas Cook and Jesse Currey Rose collection of books, annuals, pamphlets, historic catalogs and early magazines devoted to roses contains approximately 800 volumes. Highlights include the three-volume first edition of Pierre Joseph Redoute's renowned Les Roses (1817–1824); the run of the American Rose Society annuals (1916–present); and an almost complete set of an early French magazine, Journal des roses (from 1877–1914).

Highlights of the Pacific Northwest collection include 17th-century travel accounts; most of the published historic titles on the overland and maritime exploration of Oregon; original photographs, souvenirs, books and official records of the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in 1905; rare materials on Timberline Lodge; and a perfect copy of the first novel published in Oregon, Abigail Scott Duniway's Captain Gray's Company (1859).

The literature collection has the largest collection in the Pacific Northwest of Charles Dickens's first edition serial publications; a rare first edition of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of English Language (1755); and an impressive D. H. Lawrence collection of first editions and handwritten correspondence.

The Native American literature collection aims to collect all books published (historical and contemporary) of fiction, poetry, short stories and drama by American and Canadian Indian writers. This collection, the only one of its kind in the western United States, contains rare early works, such as the first book of poetry by a Canadian Indian woman, Emily Pauline Johnson (Mohawk); scarce first books of important writers of our day, such as Leslie Silko (Laguna Pueblo), N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), Joy Harjo (Muscogee/Creek) and James Welch (Blackfeet); beautifully printed broadsides of poetry; and manuscripts and correspondence by native writers.

Other important rare materials in the special collections include:

  • a complete set (20 volumes) of Edward Curtis's The North American Indian (1907–1930)
  • 10 oversize volumes of Giovanni Battista Piranesi 18th-century etchings
  • a complete 11-volume, hand-colored set of the Blaeu Atlas of 1662
  • contemporary fine press and printer's ephemera
  • More than 900 original, autographed photographs of musicians and performers who visited Portland from 1910 to the 1930s, including Sergei Rachmaninoff and Jascha Heifetz

Like all special collections, care must be used with the materials, and no materials may leave the room. Please note that this is NOT a general purpose reading room. For the security and protection of its holdings, readers may use the room only to work with books and materials in the John Wilson Special Collections.

Donors to The Library Foundation have generously helped Multnomah County Library expand these special collections and increase the exposure of these rare materials to the public. For more information about supporting these collections, contact Laura Fay at The Library Foundation.

Supported by gifts to The Library Foundation, a local nonprofit dedicated to our library's leadership, innovation and reach through private support.