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Early Printed Collections: Collection Development Policy

The British Library acquires early printed material primarily in order to:

  • fill gaps in the "national printed archive" for the British Isles, the published record of the nation's development up to the early 20th century
  • preserve the published record for future generations
  • add value and meaning to our significant holdings of other material based on the Library's special strengths
  • provide materials for current and future research.

The major constituent collections of early printed books

The 'Foundation Collections' of the British Museum Library in 1753 consisted of the library of Sir Hans Sloane, Sir Robert Cotton's manuscripts, the Major Edwards bequest of printed books, and the manuscripts of Robert and Edward Harley, to which was added in 1757 the Old Royal Library; in all, some 51,000 printed volumes.

The Edwards bequest included an endowment for further purchases, and the Royal Library brought with it the right to legal deposit. By these means, and by further gifts, the size of the Library reached 116,000 by 1821, and 219,000 by 1832.

Collections acquired during this period include: George Thomason's collection of pamphlets, newsbooks etc. forming what is today one of the most important sources for the English Civil War (presented in 1762); the drama collections of David Garrick (received in 1780); the library of the Rev. C.M. Cracherode, bequeathed in 1799; important collections relating to the French Revolution; the library of the Rev. Charles Burney, purchased on his death in 1817, chiefly classical texts but with theatrical ephemera and a collection of 18th century newspapers with many unique runs; Sir Joseph Banks's library, rich in science and natural history, received in 1827, and the magnificent gift, which arrived in the Museum in 1828 of the library of King George III, known as The King's Library.

A further 20,000 volumes were received in 1846 with the bequest of Thomas Grenville's library, but thereafter the growth in the collections of early printed material was as much by extensive purchase as by donation or bequest. Notable collections purchased include those of the Roxburghe and Luttrell ballad collections (1845 and 1849), the collections of T.J. Wise known as the Ashley Library (1937), and items acquired from Holkham Hall (1951 and 1959) and Chatsworth (1958). Major gifts include the bequest of H.S. Ashbee (1900), and bookbindings donated by Charles Ramsden (1958) and Henry Davis (1977).

The directory of Named Collections of Printed Materials gives more information about these private collections.


Development policy in detail

British Collections 1501-1914

All subjects and all categories are collected. For the period 1501-1914, in priority order, we acquire:

  • authors new to the catalogue
  • works new to the catalogue
  • substantive editions
  • other editions or issues

Incunabula Collections

The same criteria are applied as for the British Collection, further defined by the following:

  • Items enhancing the understanding of the impact on Britain of the invention of printing, including incunabula printed in England
  • items enhancing the collection as a tool for understanding the historical process by which printing spread throughout Europe during the century of its invention
  • items enhancing the evidence provided by the existing collection for the international distribution of texts in early modern Europe as a result of the invention of printing.

European collections 1501-1850

The Library selects early printed material in western European languages by applying the following criteria in addition to those listed for the British collections. Material acquired should:

  • add value to existing holdings by building on their special strengths, or
  • reflect the engagement of the English-speaking world with other European language cultures, or
  • allow an informed British engagement with specific and important aspects of the institutional, cultural, economic or intellectual formation of other European peoples and cultures.

Other collecting areas

  1. Selection of the early printed output of the English-speaking world overseas is informed by an awareness of the strengths of other research collections and by the holdings of other national libraries.

  2. The Library holds unrivalled collections of fine and historic bindings and is acknowledged as the world's leading resource for the study of early English bindings.

    In adding to the collection, priority is given to signed, identified or otherwise documented bindings not otherwise represented in the collections. Emphasis is properly placed on English bindings from the 15th century onwards. Continental bindings are also occasionally acquired where they add value and evidence to existing collections.

  3. The acquisition of decorated papers will be considered in order to fill gaps in the Olga Hirsch Collection, a research resource of international significance.


Printed Heritage Collections
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7564
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7691