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ASU collection of rare, historically significant books made accessible to the public online

The Federalist Essays book

October 12, 2020

Editor’s note:  This story is being highlighted in ASU Now’s year in review. Read more top stories from 2020.

Editor's note: This story is part of a series from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for National Book Month. Read more from this series: 16 books to read this Halloween.

“The Federalist Papers,” a collection of short essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay in 1788, is one of the most well-known pro-Constitution writings. A first-edition printing of this book, along with 23 other rare books and manuscripts related to significant figures, moments, ideas, debates and movements from American history, can be explored through Arizona State University’s Civic Classics Collection.

The collection, maintained by the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, the Center for Political Thought and Leadership and ASU Library, covers a range of topics including the founding of America, political economy, race and America, civil rights history and activism, and first peoples.

Paul Carrese, founding director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, first established the collection in 2017 in collaboration with senior members of the university administration. Since then, the collection has grown to further research in American political thought and support civic education within and beyond the classroom. 

Gettysburg Address

A photo of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (1864) from  a first-edition copy of "Autograph  Leaves of Our Country's Authors,"  in Lincoln's handwriting from the  Civic Classics Collection.

Jakub Voboril, a postdoctoral scholar in the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, joined the project after the first handful of items were purchased and helps coordinate the school’s efforts with the library.

“We slowly began to collect items such as a first-edition printing of ‘The Federalist;’ a first-edition printing of Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations;’ a contemporaneous printing of the Seneca Falls Declaration or Declaration of Sentiments printed in Frederick Douglass’ North Star newspaper; two signed, first-edition books by Martin Luther King Jr.; a first-edition printing of Frederick Douglass’ biography; and many more,” Voboril said.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the books and manuscripts were regularly on display through public programming. Although no-cost appointments for individuals to view the collection are still currently available, those involved in the project hope to return to normal in-person programming as soon as possible. 

“We want to continue to increase access to the collection, and we are committed to the collection being a public civic education resource for all Arizonans,” Voboril said. “We are constantly brainstorming new ideas to allow more and more people to engage with it. Our virtual guide is a big step in this direction ... but nothing can quite replace seeing the books in person, so we want to hit the ground running when in-person display of our collection becomes possible again.”

Through the virtual guide, a number of materials from the collection have been made available online. On the website, users can explore different titles through videos, text, photographs, learning activities and more.

Voboril said he realized how powerful and moving these books can be when he took one of his classes to visit the library and see a few of the items up close and personal.

“I remember the awe one student displayed when she got to see our copy of ‘The Federalist’ and the excitement of another student upon seeing our copy of the Seneca Falls Declaration. I have been fortunate enough to see these responses subsequently replicated many times. It is wonderful to share a great treasure with others.”

Over the years, countless ASU staff and faculty have contributed to the development of the collection and its associated online resources including library leaders Jim O’DonnellLorrie McAllister and Kathy Krzys, as well as Voboril and Carrese. Throughout the fall semester, three undergraduate students, Anusha Natarajan, Bronwyn Doebbeling and Kathryn Clark have also been helping to improve the virtual guide.

Julie Tanaka, who recently joined the library as curator of rare books and manuscripts and interim head of distinctive collections, said she looks forward to bringing her expertise in rare materials and teaching with special collections to enhance the programming already in place and to expand the use of the collection.

“With the original core of the Civic Classics Collection as the foundation, I would like to build this collection into one of Distinctive Collections' featured collections, expanding the purview to provide the historical context for the ideas that are in these important pieces of American thought and to situate them in a comparative, global perspective,” Tanaka said.

Moving forward, those involved in the project are eager to add to the collection, with plans to widen the diversity of voices and topics included while placing American political thought in a global, comparative context. 

“My hope is that visitors to our collection will find themselves moved by what they see and motivated to engage seriously with the ideas and debates these items contain and become more thoughtful, reflective citizens,” Voboril said. “In this way, the collection would fulfill its purpose to advance both our school’s and the university’s efforts to promote civic education.

Interested in viewing the collection? Reach out to the library directly, or contact Voboril at

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