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Italian Collection Development Policy

The following policy operates under the Library's general policy statements on to collection development. We acquire current material of research level interest in the humanities and social sciences published in Italy, Italian-speaking Switzerland, Malta and from former Italian African colonies.

Some of the material acquired under this policy is available for loan.

Ever since its foundation in 1753, the Library of the British Museum (which became the British Library by Act of Parliament in 1972) has always included a high proportion of books printed in Italy and about Italy which reflects the constant fascination and influence which Italy and Italian civilisation have always had on the British mind.

Some of the most notable visitors to Italy systematically began to acquire some of the Italian books and manuscripts which were later incorporated into the collections of King George III, bequeathed to the Museum by King George IV in 1823, and the splendid Italian collections formed by Thomas Grenville and bequeathed to the British Museum in 1846. It was largely the addition of these rich donations and the wise purchase of several private collections (for example the purchase of the Collection of Marquis Giovan Battista Costabili in 1858) which transformed the Italian collections of the British Museum into one of the most important collections of Italian printed books anywhere. Antonio Panizzi (1797-1879) the political exile from the Duchy of Modena, by using his expertise and unique knowledge of Italian antiquarian books, continued to expand the Italian collections considerably in the 19th century.

Strengths of the Italian Collections

The British Library's Italian Collections are considered to be among the finest in the world. The collection of 4,460 Italian incunables (15th-century books) is simply the largest and finest single collection of Italian incunables in the world and represents 43% of the Library's total incunable holdings. Of these no fewer than 94 are unique bequeathed to the Library principally by Consul Joseph Smith, King George III and Thomas Grenville.

The Italian holdings from the 16h century to the 17th century are arguably the most extensive and richest collections outside Italy and contain many unique and many important association copies. The Italian Collections are strong in history of all periods from Prehistory to the present, but especially the mediaeval period, having one of the world's finest collections of city statutes and city laws, an essential resource for those researching into the Italian communes ("comuni" and "signorie"). Material on the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Risorgimento is also equally rich and extensive and much of this is very rare and contains several unique items. Material on the Unification of Italy, the Risorgimento, contains such a high proportion of rare items that it has consequently been microfilmed and is available commercially (The Risorgimento Collection- Full texts of rare historical and political materials relating to the unification of Italy, London: K.G.Saur, 1992).

Since 1975 there has been a concerted effort to acquire some of the very scarce items published in the First and Second World Wars and also during the Fascist period. A high proportion of these items consisted of propaganda material and was anti British- especially some of the very rare imprints from former Italian Colonies in Africa - Abyssinia, Eritrea and Somalia. Post-1945 history is also very well covered i.e. the formation of the new Italian Republic after the Plebiscite, the growth of all the main Italian political parties, the Italian "Economic Miracle", conditions and differences between life in Northern Italy and in the "Mezzogiorno" etc., etc. and is supported by major Official Publications containing socio-economic statistics and data.

The Italian Collections of imaginative literature are also extremely strong and contain the first editions of most Italian authors from the incunable period to date. The collections of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio are particularly fine as are the collections of contemporary Italian and Swiss Italian authors.

In recent years several of the now scarce works by the Italian Futurists including dedication copies signed by Marinetti, Russolo, Mazza and many others together with many examples of fine quality Italian printing and "Livres d'artiste" illustrated by celebrated Italian artists have been purchased. Many of these works have also been bound in special, often de luxe, bindings which are works of art in their own right.

The number of items in the Italian Collections has been estimated at between 800,000 to one million single separate items which represents approximately 8 to 10 per cent of the total printed output. Other major strengths of the collections include all periods and aspects of art, especially catalogues raisonnés, archaeology, anthropology, architecture, linguistics and dialects especially Italian dialects, Italian politics and political parties, economics, education, theology, music, sociology, banditry and the Mafia, design and the history of typography and printing and bindings, numerous monographs published by academic institutions e.g. the Accademia della Crusca and the Accademia dei Lincei, most of the Humanities and Arts Faculties of many Italian universities including the European University Institute in Florence, the Gregorian University, American Universities in Italy, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organisation.

The Italian Collections - Current Collecting Policy

The Library seeks to acquire current material of research level interest in the humanities and social sciences published in Italy, Italian speaking Switzerland, Malta and from former Italian African colonies, regardless of language, as widely as possible as funds permit.

Coverage of Italian material is particularly strong in the traditional mainstream humanities disciplines such as history (all periods), imaginative literature - all important critical editions which augment and complement previous and earlier editions in the collections are especially purchased - language and linguistics including all Italian and Swiss Italian dialects and Esperanto, art of all periods including exhibition catalogues, archaeology, architecture, philosophy, economics, history of printing and the book trade, librarianship, catalogues of library collections, design, local history and customs and folklore.

A high proportion of Italian scholarly publishing is devoted to the study of English, Germanic, East European or classical and patristic texts or to non Italian civilisations- e.g. Macedonian, Chinese, Japanese, Indian civilisations etc. which are deemed to be equally in scope as those on Italian literature and civilisation.

Books on the fine arts, the theatre, archaeology and music (with the exception of music scores which are collected by the Music Library) are collected as strongly as history and literature.

Italian material in the social sciences including anthropology, education and sociology is acquired more selectively. Works on the history of science e.g. Galileo, Leonardo, are acquired but modern science and technology are not since these are the responsibility of Science, Technology & Business. Owing to recent reductions in funding, the purchase of books in Italian on law and on theology has been considerably reduced. With a few exceptions children's books, translations from other major languages, low scholarly level books and manuals are not purchased.


Italian Section
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7412 7573 / 7531 / 7696
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7784