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Icelandic Collections

Our Icelandic collections are probably the most comprehensive anywhere outside Scandinavia. We collect publications of research value from Iceland in the humanities and social sciences. Our holdings are listed in Explore the British Library.

Introduction to the Icelandic Collections | Related Icelandic material elsewhere in the British Library | Icelandic Internet Resources

Introduction to the Icelandic Collections


When the Library of the British Museum opened in 1759, created from the Sloane, Old Royal and other collections, it is estimated that there were already some 1,250 Scandinavian works in the foundation collections of its Department of Printed Books. The bulk of these came from the library of Sir Hans Sloane, largely in the fields of medicine and natural sciences but also in those of antiquities, history, topography, philosophy, theology and law. Notable among items of Icelandic interest were several of the early editions of Icelandic sagas printed in Sweden between 1664 and 1720 as well as Ari Thorgilsson’s Íslendingabók(Copenhagen, 1733) (British Library shelfmark 590.e.8).

In the early years of the British Museum there was no regular acquisitions grant and each purchase had to be approved in advance by Trustees. Identifiable examples of Icelandic purchases in that period include the Icelandic Annalar compiled by Björn á Skarðsá in the mid-17th century and printed at Hrappsey in 1774-75 (590.g.5-6).

During this period however, there were also many donations and the most significant as far as the Icelandic Collections were concerned, was that of 121 printed books and 31 manuscripts acquired by Joseph Banks during a tour of Iceland in 1772. Banks, accompanied by his Swedish librarian, Daniel Solander, among others, travelled through a small part of south eastern Iceland, collecting books and manuscripts, as well as natural specimens. This fine collection, the bulk of which he presented to the Library in 1773, provides a unique insight into the kind of books to be found in Icelandic homes of that period. The majority were of a religious nature and included a copy of the first complete Bible in Icelandic (with woodcuts) printed in Hólar in 1584 (692.i.1). However, there were also examples of law, history, fiction, verse and practical manuals. Other significant Icelandic items came to the British Museum with the gift of Sir Joseph Banks’ own library in 1820.

The King’s Library, which was acquired in 1823 and finally came to the Museum in 1828, contained over a thousand Scandinavian books and pamphlets dating from before 1801, mostly in the humanities, and many of which were acquired from Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin, an Icelander who had spent some years in Britain with an official commission to seek out documents relating to the history and antiquities of Denmark. Scandinavian material in the King’s Library was carefully selected, with particular strengths in history and biography, topography and law. Among the items of historical interest was another edition of Ari’s Íslendingabók (151.b.28(3)), and the Landnámabók (151.b.28(1)), both printed at Skálholt in1688, as well as the first Icelandic edition of Snorri’s Heimskringla (Stockholm, 1697) (155.c.11, 12).

The acquisition of the Grenville Library in 1847 added yet more rare Scandinavian items to the collections but the middle of the 19th century onwards saw the adoption of a more deliberate collection policy. In 1837, the new keeper, Antonio Panizzi proposed that the Museum should acquire more standard foreign works, including 'literary journals, transactions of learned societies, newspapers and collections of laws'. This approach was certainly reflected in the materials purchased from Scandinavia during the next years.

In a report to Panizzi in 1861, his assistant, Thomas Watts, expressed the view that the Museum should aim to build up "the best collection of books in every European language outside the countries of origin". That aim was undoubtedly realised for Scandinavian material over the next decades and into the 20th century, despite financial cutbacks at various times.

Present scope and development

In 1973, the British Library was established: the Icelandic Collections, along with the other library collections of the British Museum, became part of the new national library of the United Kingdom. Nowadays, the Library does not generally acquire complete collections, whether from institutions or individual donors. Instead it carries out the systematic selection of newly-published materials on a regular basis.

It is difficult to give exact figures for the total number of Icelandic books in the British Library since there is no separate catalogue of Icelandic holdings. The Library’s catalogue of items acquired since 1975 shows approximately 1,900 records for titles published in Iceland. The present growth rate is somewhere in the order of 100 separately published monographs per annum. We also subscribe to approximately 50 monographic series and periodicals. Selection is carried out systematically from the Icelandic national bibliography, Íslensk bókaskrá, published annually. Present collecting policy is to acquire research level monographs and serials within the humanities and social sciences including bibliographies, reference works, official statistics and reports and a representative collection of significant modern literary works.

We also operate an exchange scheme with major institutions in Iceland (including government bodies, libraries, and museums) and currently receive many of their publications, and therefore have major holdings of official and government publications (among these, a wide range of statistical titles from Hagstofa Íslands).

Occasionally, we do still receive major donations. The Hannås Collection of Scandinavian Linguistic Literature was donated to the Library in 1984 by Torgrim Hannås, a Norwegian-born antiquarian bookseller living in Britain. The collection includes some 710 items, in all the Scandinavian languages, of which about three quarters date from before 1851. Just over half of the collection consists of dictionaries, the rest being divided between textbooks, readers, phrase books etc and linguistic monographs.

Within the Icelandic Collections, other European languages are represented as well as Icelandic, including a number of Icelandic books published in English. Within the field of Icelandic studies, the collection has particular strengths in linguistics, literature and history. However the British Library’s Icelandic collections are not focused exclusively on material relating to Iceland; their coverage is international in scope and includes an extensive range of disciplines within the humanities and social sciences.


Lidderdale, T.W.: Catalogue of the books printed in Iceland from 1578 to 1880 in the Library of the British Museum. London, 1885, with supplements by W. Fiske, 1886 and 1890.

Hogg, Peter: The Hannås Collection: catalogue of a collection of Scandinavian dictionaries, grammars and linguistic literature presented to the British Library by Torgrim Hannås. London, 1994

A Scandinavian short title catalogue to 1800, begun in 1992, is now nearing completion.

Related Icelandic material elsewhere in the British Library

The Icelandic Collections are normally consulted in the Humanities Reading Room at St Pancras, except for pre-1851 books and periodicals which are consulted in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room there. For our extensive collection of Icelandic official and government publications, it is also worth consulting the Social Policy Information Service (SPIS) collections - formerly known as the Official Publications Library - which are usually read in the SPIS Reading Room at St Pancras.

Related Icelandic material is held in other parts of the British Library:

Recorded sound is held by the Sound Archive. Manuscripts are held by Manuscript Collections. Newspapers are held at British Library Newspapers. Scientific monographs are held by Science Technology & Business (STB). Social sciences and scientific serials and conference proceedings are held by the Document Supply service in Boston Spa. Other Icelandic material is held by Map, Music, and Philatelic Collections.


Scandinavian Section
The British Library
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United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7575
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7578