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Western Manuscripts: Collection development strategy

The following policy operates under the Library's general policy statements on collection development.


The British Library holds the world's pre-eminent collection of manuscript and archival sources for the study and appreciation of British culture and history. It is also among just a handful of institutions able to boast substantial holdings of original documents of world import.

Within this whole - which encompasses the sciences as well as the humanities - particular strengths are represented by one of the most comprehensive collections of Western illuminated manuscripts in the world, unsurpassed holdings of early literary and secular manuscripts relating to Britain in particular (but not exclusively), manuscripts for the history of the development of Christianity in Britain and continental Europe, manuscript and archival sources for the study of all periods of British history (including the colonial experience), manuscripts and archives of individuals and groups prominent in national life, and extensive holdings of manuscript works and personal papers of celebrated British writers.

The Collection Development Strategy for Western Manuscripts seeks to deepen and enhance areas of existing strength, where those areas have a clear research value. It aims judiciously to fill gaps as opportunities occur and to address new areas of collecting likely to support research. Such activities will take into account the national and international collection development strategies of other institutions, as well as the strategies of regional Museums, Libraries and Archives Councils. Although research value represents the unifying criterion for development across periods and subject areas, in some instances a compelling case for acquisition may be made on broader cultural grounds; that is, if a manuscript or archive is considered to be of outstanding national significance.

Scope and definitions

Collection development will focus on manuscripts and archives of national significance and substantial research value. Material of largely regional importance will not be collected, unless of significant research value above and beyond its regional associations. Manuscripts and archives with a strong Scottish or Welsh association will not form a priority, where such material is of clear interest to an appropriate Scottish or Welsh institution. Non-British material will be acquired only very selectively and in consultation with other interested institutions. However such material may be acquired more extensively where it fits well with existing collections, for example European illuminated manuscripts and other important pre-1600 manuscripts, or modern archival material reflecting the colonial and post-colonial experience from a British perspective.

Manuscripts may be understood to mean any non-printed written text, or collection of texts. Archives may be understood to mean aggregates of such materials created by individuals or corporate bodies during the course of their life and/or work. While for earlier periods the literal definition of manuscript ('handwritten') will largely hold true, modern collections will include a range of other non-printed formats including typescripts, photographs, newspaper cuttings, audio-visual material, word processed documents, and computer files. The Library will be increasing the acquisition of manuscripts and archives in electronic format.

New collection items are generally only accepted where transfer of ownership to the British Library is agreed. Most acquisitions are therefore purchases, legacies or donations. (The British Library holds a small number of long-term loans of western manuscripts and archives but will accept new material on loan only in exceptional circumstances.) The British Library has its own acquisition budget to support purchases of western manuscripts and archives but will seek to raise additional funding where necessary for any item that closely fits its collection development strategy. Manuscripts or archives offered as donations will be assessed according to the same criteria as other potential acquisitions.

Major heritage items can be acquired through the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council's Acceptance in Lieu scheme or through a Private Treaty sale, both of which offer substantial tax advantages to the vendor. If you are a US taxpayer wishing to give documents, the American Trust for the British Library can advise on tax-efficient ways of making your gift. 

All new additions to the collection must come from a bona fide source and have a demonstrated provenance. The vendor or donor must have the legal authority to transfer the material to the Library and will be asked to provide documentary proof of ownership. The Library's staff and officers will make all enquiries necessary to satisfy the conditions outlined in the DCMS guidelines Combating Illicit Trade: Due diligence guidelines for museums, libraries and archives on collecting and borrowing cultural material (October 2005), in accordance with Due Diligence and the Ethical Acquisitions Policies of the Board of the Library.

While the focus of the modern collections is on the archives of individuals, offers of institutional archives will be considered according to the same criteria used to judge personal papers. However, where substantial cataloguing or storage costs are likely to be incurred as a result of the acquisition of institutional archives, donors may be asked to contribute towards these costs.

Where substantial non-standard preservation costs may be incurred due to the poor condition of the offered material the British Library will take this into account in deciding whether or not to proceed with the acquisition.

Collection profile

The British Library holds one of the greatest collections of manuscripts and archives in the world, covering all fields of Western knowledge from the earliest written documents to the present day. Particular strengths are:

  • The exceptionally large number of internationally-renowned manuscripts covering all periods.
  • Internationally important manuscripts for the history and literature of ancient Greece and Rome, including papyri and ostraca.
  • Internationally important manuscripts for the history and development of Christianity in the West.
  • One of the largest and most comprehensive collections of Western illuminated manuscripts in the world.
  • Nationally important sources for the study of medieval and early modern history, including cartularies, charters, seals and state papers.
  • Unsurpassed holdings of early literary and secular manuscripts, providing significant evidence of the development of the English language and the British literary tradition, including a third of the world's manuscripts containing Old English and a large proportion of those in Anglo-Norman French and Middle English.
  • The large collection of music manuscripts dating from before 1500, including liturgical books and song books.
  • The collection of bookbindings dating from the early medieval period to modern times.
  • Antiquarian collections, including heraldic and genealogical manuscripts.
  • Holdings reflecting the enthusiasms of British manuscript collectors, encompassing a wide range of scientific and humanities subjects.
  • The most significant collection of key Renaissance manuscript texts copied for circulation, plus a high proportion of Renaissance autograph material.
  • Manuscripts and archives relating to the history of the book.
  • Manuscripts and archives relating to the history of science, technology and medicine covering all periods.
  • Papers of geographers and explorers, including records of expeditions and voyages covering almost all areas of the globe, and an extensive collection of maps, charts, plans, topographical drawings, paintings and sketches.
  • Historic or 'country house' archives where several generations of the same family were engaged in some way in public life, but there is a larger context than just the official. The collections include the papers of many of the leading aristocratic families in British history.
  • Personal papers of government ministers and statesmen. The strength of the political collections is illustrated by the extensive holdings of the papers of British Prime Ministers.
  • Personal papers of individuals prominent in national life, such as academics, civil servants, diplomats, economists, journalists, lawyers, soldiers.
  • Archives of reformers and pressure groups of national significance from the early modern period to the present day.
  • Papers relating to the British Empire and to colonial life, including the extensive European Manuscripts collection inherited from the India Office Library.
  • A large number of modern literary manuscripts of outstanding rarity and significance.
  • Outstanding holdings of 18th and 19th century original works of major authors.
  • Unparalleled theatrical collections, including major archives of historic theatre companies, the Lord Chamberlain's vast play collection 1824-1968 and the subsequent playscript collection; and the archives of numerous modern theatrical figures.
  • A substantial and rapidly growing collection of contemporary British literary papers, ranging from exemplars of literary drafts to comprehensive archives.

Collecting priorities

1. Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts

Within this area the British Library's principal priority is to build on and deepen its strengths, including both British and European manuscripts holdings. The collecting priorities will be to:

  • Continue to acquire important illuminated manuscripts in order to ensure that the Library maintains its position as one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of such manuscripts.
  • Continue to acquire important manuscripts for the history of Christianity in Britain and continental Europe, including building on the Library's holdings of Greek manuscripts.
  • Continue to acquire nationally-important sources for historical study.
  • Build on the Library's strength in historical, literary, and theological manuscripts in Old English, Anglo-Norman French, and Middle English.
  • Enhance the collection of medieval music manuscripts.
  • Enhance the collection of medieval and earlier scientific manuscripts.
  • Enhance the holdings of Renaissance and early-modern manuscript texts and autographs.
  • Develop the collection of medieval bookbindings.

Given the British Library's position as the national collection, where possible the section will seek to acquire outstanding heritage items, strongly associated with our culture, history, art and literature.

Weight will be given to the rarity of the type of item under consideration; i.e. where there are known to be very few examples of a particular type of manuscript in private hands, the case for acquiring one that becomes available will be strengthened. Leaves and fragments from manuscripts broken-up in the last generation will not usually be acquired.

The British Library will selectively acquire post-1600 material, where this adds significantly to the understanding of the medieval collections.

2. Modern Historical Manuscripts

Within this area the British Library will seek to build on existing strengths across all areas and subjects and to develop its collection of contemporary historical, political and scientific archives. The collecting priorities will therefore be to:

  • Continue to acquire single manuscripts and short runs of papers when of clear historical or biographical importance.
  • Continue to acquire major historical archives and collections to build on existing strengths, where opportunities arise.
  • Enhance archival holdings of major modern British politicians and statesmen, including both historical and contemporary figures.
  • Enhance archival holdings of public figures, such as academics, activists, campaigners, civil servants, diplomats, economists, journalists, lawyers, including both historical and contemporary figures.
  • Enhance holdings of manuscripts and archives for the history of science, technology and medicine, including the papers of both historical and contemporary figures.
  • Enhance holdings relating to the British in India.
  • Enhance holdings relating to exploration and geography, including maps, topographical drawings, plans and illustrated material.

3. Modern Literary Manuscripts

The British Library is currently playing a leading role in the Working Group on UK Literary Heritage in developing a national strategy for the retention, preservation and availability, within the UK, of manuscripts of pre-eminent UK literary authors. The Library's collection development will focus on archives and manuscripts of national significance and high research value. Its collecting priorities will therefore be to:

  • Continue to acquire single and small groups of (typically early) items when of exceptional or high heritage value or of clear textual or biographical importance.
  • Enhance archival holdings of British literary institutions, including small publishers, literary societies and agencies, to reflect and document literary trends and change.
  • Enhance archival holdings of major modern British literary-related figures, in particular agents and critics, to better map literary trends and change.
  • Enhance archival holdings of modern British creative writers, particularly major novelists and poets, to support biographical and wider literary study.
  • Enhance the collections of major modern dramatists and theatre-related holdings.

4. Associated Materials

Reading Room Reference Collections

Open-Access reference material is acquired in order to support the work of users of the Manuscripts Reading Room. Selection takes account of the Open Access material held in other Reading Rooms, as well as material held in the Library's general printed book collections. New material is purchased and offers of donations are also welcomed. However, due to limited space in the Manuscripts Reading Room the British Library does not generally accept unsolicited donations and readers are asked to contact the Department of Manuscripts in advance of sending items.


Facsimiles in various media are acquired to provide surrogates of material held in the British Library and in external collections. They are acquired through agreements with the publisher, as well as by purchase, transfer and donation. Items are primarily selected in order to deepen areas of existing collection strength, with particular emphasis on material that attracts considerable scholarly attention. Duplication of holdings already available in the British Library's printed collections is avoided and regard is given to the holdings of repositories within the London area through membership of the Palaeography Co-operative Acquisitions Committee (Senate House).

Copies of Exported Manuscripts

The British Library holds an extensive collection of copies, in various media, of manuscript items exported from the UK since 1966, which are deposited under the Export Licensing Regulations, currently administered by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.