When the General Library Building, then known as JUL, was built in 1941, space was allocated in the building for storage of the rare books and manuscripts which had been acquired by the Vanderbilt libraries. A Treasure Room was established on the fourth floor, south wing, to provide access to these materials and was later moved to more spacious quarters on the eighth floor. Funding for this room was provided by Colonel Granville Sevier as a memorial to John Sevier, the first governor of Tennessee. This space is now occupied by the W. T. Bandy Center for Baudelaire and Modern French Studies.
The Special Collections department was formally organized in 1965. Still occupying space on the fourth floor of JUL, it focused on collecting material on the history of the university, manuscripts, and rare books in order to provide primary source material for graduate research. When the H. Fort Flowers wing of the library was built in 1969, Special Collections was moved to the new wing and featured a Fugitive Room which showcased the Jesse E. Wills Fugitive/Agrarian Collection, a collection of books by and about the Fugitive and Agrarian literary movements at Vanderbilt in the 1920s. Jesse Wills, a member of the Fugitive literary group and chairman of the Vanderbilt Board of Trust from 1967 to 1976, was one of the primary founders of this addition to the department and actively sponsored the acquisition of material to support it.
Today, Special Collections can boast of a collection of more than 40,000 rare books; 300,000 photographs; and over 700 manuscript collections. It also serves as the primary access point for the University Archives, a depository of papers and publications which document the history of the university. Open to the general public, the department serves patrons all over the United States as well as those in foreign countries.
When Special Collections was established in 1965, part of the department's mission was to establish and maintain an archive of university-related material to document the history of the university. At the time of its establishment, records and university publications were scattered all over campus. The patient efforts of Woodrow W. Wasson, Vanderbilt's first University Archivist, brought all these diverse materials together in one location. Ultimately, the volume of the collection became so great that a separate storage facility, now known simply as the Library Annex, had to be used to store much of the material. In addition to University department records, the Archives also includes copies of student publications, dissertations, and publications issued by Vanderbilt University Press. After the merger of Peabody College and Vanderbilt University in 1979, the Archives expanded to include the records and publications of Peabody College as well. Due to the confidential nature of some of the material, only portions of the Archives are available to the public.
The Photographic Archives of Vanderbilt University was founded in 1973, shortly after the university's centennial celebration. Originally housed in Alumni Memorial Hall, the Photographic Archive was transferred to the Special Collections department in 1981. The mission of the Archives is to collect and preserve photographs which document the history of the university. From an initial collection of a few hundred images, the collection now numbers over 300,000 photographs.
DiscoverArchive, Vanderbilt’s institutional repository, became part of the Special Collections and University Archives department in May 2008. The goal of the archive is to collect, preserve, index, and distribute the digital scholarly output of the Vanderbilt University community. This output includes articles, course-related materials, unpublished research, podcasts, student publications, working papers, technical reports and other products of the university’s intellectual efforts.