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History and Classics

History and Classics brings together 3000 years of rich manuscript, printed, archival and audio-visual resources about the history of Britain and the wider world. These unique historical sources are accessible onsite and increasingly online. History and Classics places history at the centre of understanding human experience and change within our society.

What collections do we have?

The collections cover all fields of knowledge and are in a broad range of formats, including printed books, manuscripts, archives and sound recordings. They range from the earliest written records to the digital collections of the present day. There are many major heritage items. Together, they represent a vast and unique resource for the historical understanding of human experience, culture and society.

The History and Classics department comprises five specialist sections:

  • Historical Papers: the papers of British politicians, administrators, campaigners, scientists and other public figures of the 17th to the 21st centuries.
  • India Office Records: the archives of the East India Company, Board of Control, India Office, Burma Office and related British agencies, 1600-1951.
  • Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts: manuscripts, papyri and ostraca relating to the culture of ancient Greece and Rome; medieval and Renaissance manuscripts from across Europe covering all fields of knowledge.
  • Oral History: audio recordings and life story interviews from the late-19th century to the present day that. document the memories and life experiences of a diverse range of people in Britain.
  • Printed Historical Sources: books, periodicals and other printed materials published in Britain and its dependencies from the 15th century to the present day; the first European printed books (incunabula), historic bookbindings and decorated papers.

How can our collections be used?

History and Classics supports research at all levels. The collections and the activities of the staff directly underpin the UK and international academic sectors, but our audiences are much broader. Family researchers, local historians, undergraduates, school children, heritage professionals, bibliographers, artists, and bookbinders all regularly use these collections and benefit from curatorial activities and expertise.

Access to original materials is provided through the Library’s reading rooms. Digital resources collected or created by the department are increasingly available via the British Library website or through academic subscription services. Most materials are described in one of the two main integrated catalogues and there are also a number of specialist subject or format catalogues.

What other services do we offer?

History and Classics collections are central to exhibitions, media activities, events, and learning projects. Staff also work with the commercial sector to develop products built around digitised material from our collections. These range from early English newspapers, through 19th-century British printed books, to family history materials held as part of the India Office Records. Most initiatives rely heavily on the collection knowledge and expertise of the department’s curators.

History and Classics staff provide expert advice to a range of UK governmental departments and agencies and also contribute to numerous external project, advisory, and funding boards, most often in relation to collaborative research or digitisation programmes. They also deliver training inside and outside the British Library, promoting professional skills in areas such as oral history and the history of the book.

History and Classics is committed to building further connections with our users, enhancing access tools, building partnerships both internally and externally, and continuing our roles as trusted and expert leaders within the diverse research communities with which we work.