The Rare Book Collection (RBC) traces its beginnings to 1929 and the university's purchase of close to 400 incunabula (books printed before 1501), with the support of the Hanes Family of Winston-Salem. At that time, Dr. Frederic M. Hanes and his siblings established the Hanes Foundation for the Study of the Origin and Development of the Book in honor of their parents, John W. and Anna H. Hanes, to fund the purchase and the future acquisition of rare books and related materials at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Over the following decades, the Hanes Foundation enabled the acquisition of many important items for the study of the book, including ancient clay tablets, medieval manuscripts, landmarks of printing history, private press books, and significant reference works and bibliographies. Dr. Hanes, a book collector, also bequeathed outstanding works from his own library, including the Hanes Book of Hours (Bruges, 15th century) and his copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer.
A second benefactor, William A. Whitaker, began to support the RBC in 1947 by donating his copy of the Second Folio of William Shakespeare's works; he subsequently gifted copies of the Third and Fourth Shakespeare folios. Whitaker established the Johnson-Boswell Collection, comprised of lifetime editions of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, and their circle. He also presented the library with a number of other special collections and hundreds of volumes of literature.
In 1948, Archibald Henderson, UNC professor of mathematics and the "authorized" biographer of George Bernard Shaw, further strengthened English literature holdings by beginning the donation of his Shaw collection of 3,000 books and pamphlets, as well as more than a thousand pieces of ephemera.
The RBC continued to grow in the postwar years. In 1951, the university acquired the collection of Burton Emmett, a former advertising executive and co-founder of the book collector's quarterly the Colophon. Emmett's rare books—ranging from an illuminated 13th-century Psalter created for the use of the Abbey at Saint-Denis to Emily Dickinson's Poems (1890)—became part of the RBC; his print collection was transferred to the Ackland Museum in 1958.
Another major acquisition of the decade was a fine French history collection of more than 5,000 books, pamphlets, periodicals, documents, and illustrations, donated by William Henry Hoyt in 1953. In recognition of the RBC's increasing size and importance, the university hired its first full-time curator of rare books in 1959.
In 1960, William A. Whitaker's last will and testament provided for a generous fund for the RBC to purchase rare books and manuscripts. The Whitaker Foundation has especially ensured the growth of the RBC's holdings of English and American literature, as well as Continental European books and manuscripts.
That same year, the Hanes Family initiated a special tradition by gifting the Library's one millionth volume: a copy of John Gower's Confessio amantis (1483), printed by William Caxton, in its original binding, which was subsquently found to contain another Caxton printing, an indulgence of 1481. The Hanes Family continues to fund the acquisition of the university's millionth volumes (single volumes or collections of materials), which all become part of the Rare Book Collection. Most recently, in March 2014, the Hanes Foundation presented Juan Latino's Ad Catholicvm, pariter et invictissimvm Philippvm Dei gratia Hispaniarum regem (Granada: Hugo de Mena, 1573)—the first book of poetry in a Western language by an individual of sub-Saharan African descent—as the seven millionth volume. See news item and a list of millionth volumes.
In 1980, following the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the Hanes Foundation, the RBC inaugurated the Hanes Lecture series, which brings distinguished scholars and practitioners to campus to speak on topics in the history of the book. In addition to the Hanes series, the RBC maintains a very active program of events and exhibitions that showcase its wide-ranging holdings. RBC materials are also regularly and effectively deployed in undergraduate and graduate instruction at the university.
In the last few decades, the RBC has expanded in size and scope through myriad significant gifts and purchases. From the original gift of the Hanes family in 1929, the Rare Book Collection has grown to close to 200,000 printed volumes, as well as substantial holdings of original graphics, medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, and literary and historical papers. The RBC is especially noted for its holdings of literature in English, early printing, French history, and Spanish, Catalan, and Portuguese drama. Other special strengths include the New World cronistas, the Russian diaspora, Maya civilization, the human kidney, and World Wars I & II.
Generous donations of materials and the creation of new endowments continue to benefit the RBC and enhance its ability to fulfill its foundational mission of the study of the book and to support the university's academic programs, the scholarship of outside researchers, and the lifelong learning of North Carolina's citizens.