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French-Swiss Collections

We hold the largest and best collection of French-Swiss material in the United Kingdom. However the collections are not near-comprehensive as are the collections from France. 

The exact size is not known since, as with other country/language holdings, there is no separate catalogue. The collections contain books and periodicals on all subjects in the humanities, social sciences and history of science, with particular emphasis on history and literature.

Early collections (pre-1851)

The Library holds a strong collection of incunables printed in Geneva starting in 1478 (the first year of printing in French-speaking Switzerland), including a copy of the very first Geneva imprint, the Livre des Saints Anges. The British Library also holds a copy of the first book printed in Lausanne in 1493, a missal commissioned by the local bishop from the itinerant printer Jean Belot.

Geneva, as the Protestant Rome, is responsible for many of the 16th-century imprints, principally Bibles, (e.g. Geneva Bible), psalters and a strong collection of works by Calvin. Henri Estienne, the century's great scholar-printer, was based in Geneva and the British Library has copies of his works (e.g.Thesaurus Graecae Linguae). Examples of unique holdings are the annotated copies of books belonging to Henri Estienne (Burney Collection) and to Isaac Casaubon, the classical scholar and theologian, including books Casaubon acquired from his colleagues and friends in Geneva (many acquired by James I and thus part of the Old Royal Library). The Library has two copies of the first French Protestant (Olivétan) Bible printed in Neuchâtel in 1535.

In the 18th century, Swiss-French publishing continued to be aimed at the international market. In particular an estimated half of French books of this period were published abroad, in Geneva, Lausanne and Neuchâtel as well as in the Low Countries. Examples include editions of the Encyclopédie (including the version printed at Yverdon) and works of Voltaire published by Cramer in Geneva between 1756 and 1775. The Library holds a run of the Bibliothèque universelle, the region's main literary periodical in the nineteenth century. Some of the albums of drawings by Rodolphe Töpffer regarded as the forerunners of the modern bande dessinée are held in the British Museum Department of Prints and Drawings rather than the British Library.

The pre-1851 collections are the responsibility of Early Printed Collections.

Modern collections (post-1850)

Twentieth-century publishing matches sixteenth-and eighteenth-century imprints in terms of quality and scope. The Library has strong holdings of modern and contemporary Swiss-French literature, including 35 titles in the Cahiers vaudois series which may be considered the cornestone of modern 20th-century imaginative writing in French-speaking Switzerland. During the Second World War French writers unable to publish in their own country could turn to Switzerland. The British Library holds a run of the Cahiers du Rhône (Neuchâtel, La Baconnière) containing work by Aragon, Bernanos, Cayrol, Emmanuel, Jouve, Mounier and Saint-John Perse. Among the highlights of the collection is a copy of Ovid's Metamorphoses illustrated by Picasso - his first illustrated book and the first book published by the Swiss art publisher Albert Skira (Lausanne, 1931).

A strong collection of Swiss official publications and of international publications issued in Switzerland (UN Europe, International Red Cross) may be read in the Social Science Reading Room

Material currently collected from French-speaking Switzerland falls into two categories:

  • material in the widely-read European languages covering the full range of subjects in the humanities, social sciences and history of science
  • material relating specifically to Switzerland/Swiss studies.

In common with other areas of the collections the 1960s to late 1980s probably mark the period of greatest expansion owing to generous acquisitions budgets. Since then there has been thinner coverage overall, with most emphasis placed on history, literature and the history of the book. Currently there are some 70 periodicals and monographs in series acquired on standing order and some 150 monograph titles are purchased each year.

We have compiled a list of French Swiss Internet Resources 


French Section
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7568
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7784