We hold one of the richest collections of American printed books outside of the United States of America, covering all the humanities and social sciences disciplines, and actively collect new material. We select, acquire and make available items published within the USA after 1776, regardless of the language of publication.
'What a powerful influence such a collection of American literature will have on the British character. It will have a tendency to soften down his prejudice against our country by enlightening his ignorance, and will thereby greatly facilitate his return to moderation, modesty and charity.'
- Henry Stevens, American bibliographer
R. A. Campbell, Our Flag or the Evolution of the Stars and Stripes including the Reason to be of the Design, the Colors and their Position, Mystic Interpretation, (Chicago, 1890) [9602.cc.4], front cover (detail). Copyright © The British Library Board
These pages outline the history and scope of the collections and provide a guide to US materials held elsewhere in the British Library.
History of Americana and United States Collections
The extent and type of Americana and United States materials collected by the British Museum and Library have altered over time, reflecting the changing nature of scholarship, bookselling and librarianship. This brief history aims to suggest what types of material are to be found in the Library and why they are there.
The 18th-century foundation collections of the British Museum, such as the library of the physician Sir Hans Sloane, the Old Royal Library (George II) and the King's Library (George III), all contained substantial amounts of Americana. The scope of these collections ranged widely, but attempted to provide the basis for 'polite' learning, and as such are strong on accounts of early voyages and travels. These collections also included manuscript materials and artefacts as well as books, and Americana acquired at this time includes Sir Hans Sloane's collection of early issues of the New England Courant and Sir Robert Cotton's map of the East Coast of America, drawn by John Dee for Queen Elizabeth I. However, materials such as almanacs, newspapers and handbooks, deemed to be utilitarian rather than literary, tended to be excluded from such collections.
Following the American Revolution, North American books continued to be acquired by the Museum, usually through British booksellers, but not in great number. In 1843, a report by the future Principal Librarian of the Museum, Anthony Panizzi, inaugurated a new phase of acquisition. He argued for systematic and universal collecting of all 'branches of human learning from all countries, in all languages', increasing the numbers of books purchased. Parliament granted the Museum an annual sum of £10,000 for the purchase of such material. Panizzi made good use of foreign bookmen, typified by the American Henry Stevens, whom in 1846 he dispatched to 'sweep America' for 'books of all kinds'.
Stevens found the market for American volumes undeveloped and was able to swell the Museum's collection of American works by some 12,300 volumes over the next decade; by 1867 the Librarian of Congress declared that the 'most complete collection of books relating to America in the world is that now gathered on the shelves of the British Museum'.
Panizzi also persuaded the trustees of the British Museum to enforce legislation requiring publishers to deposit with the Museum one copy of every book they sold in Great Britain. In 1886, this obligation was extended to books printed abroad but distributed in Britain, leading to the incorporation of a great number of American volumes. Several thousand American books and parts of journals continue to be received by the Library in this manner each year.
By the end of the 19th century, the increasing specialization of many disciplines and the enormous amount of material published meant that few libraries could afford to collect encyclopedically. British Museum funds for foreign purchases declined, and although U.S. materials continued to be collected extensively, for the period 1880—1950, the Museum was unable or declined to match the great collecting 'sweeps' of American publishing output that Stevens inaugurated. However, much was also acquired through legal deposit and exchange.
The holdings also suffered damage during a 1941 air raid. Many of the significant gaps in the collections for the period 1880—1950 have now been filled through a large-scale microfilming programme, sponsored by the American Trust for the British Library. Retrospective acquisition also continues.
The Library continues to acquire an extensive range of imprints and periodicals from the United States to support current research and innovation in a wide range of disciplines. Representative selections of more ephemeral materials are also routinely acquired to provide the basis for future historical research, and the international nature of modern publishing means many items are obtained through legal deposit. Materials are made available at the British Library's St Pancras site or through the Document supply service. Scientific, business, medical and technical materials are collected by Science, Technology and Business.
Further information about the history of the British Library.
The range of the collections is vast, reflecting all aspects of American life and thought. They are particularly strong in material published by American university presses, learned societies, museums and research libraries. Government publications are extensive. The Library also holds substantial collections of imaginative literature, including material published by small and experimental presses, and little magazines. Other strengths include pre-1800 imprints, religious works, political groups and official publications. The geographical range of the collections extends to the Mid-West and South, as well as publishers on both seaboards.
The collections are predominately written in the English language, but there are also strong holdings of Spanish and Native American language material. All formats are represented, including electronic materials, microform and a growing collection of fine press and art material.
Legal publications are generally not collected, avoiding duplication of the holdings of the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies.
The collections contain an extensive range of both primary and secondary materials published in the United States relating to American history. These include many rare American gazetteers, almanacs and annuals; travel writing; accounts of the exploration of North America; early descriptions of the topography of the country; contact with Native Americans, and later works on the growth of American cities and society. There is a good selection of contemporary and first-hand accounts of significant events in American history such as the settlement of the West, the Civil War, the Gold Rush, and an extensive range of material relating to United States regional history, such as local and county histories and publications by American state historical societies. Microform materials held by Document supply support the collections.
The American Revolution An Online Gallery Feature.
The Library has notable collections of first and variant editions of literary works, American literary magazines and mainstream trade publishers. Writers active in all regions of the United States are represented, particularly the Mid-West and West, and writers of regional schools such as the Bohemian Club and Hoosier writers, as well as African-American, Hispanic-American and Native-American writers.
There are also substantial collections of popular and genre fiction, such as detective novels and science fiction, as well as representative samples of works by experimental, avant-garde, and 'underground' writers and publishers.
The collections also include substantial holdings of research materials for the study of literature including bibliographies, literary criticism, and literary history and theory, and holdings of journals which support these subject areas. American Prose Fiction 1774—1904 is held by Document supply in microform. The Library also hold good collections of little magazines.
American Literature in Europe An Online Gallery Feature on Hawthorne, James, Wharton, Stein, Miller, Nabokov .
'A Poet Given to Compulsive Self-Revision’: Reflections on Walt Whitman, Hypertext, and the 1855 Edition of Leaves of Grass by Dorian Hayes (electronic British Library Journal article, no. 6, 2006)
Publishing and printing, and bibliographical materials
Holdings of material relating to the history of printing, publishing and allied trades in the United States are another strength of the collections. Of particular note are the numerous examples of early printing, such as rare works of the early Mid-West, West Coast and Southern publishers; significant material in languages other than English, including Native American languages, and examples of work by publishers connected with particular religious, political and other interest groups.
Early Eastern Algonquian Language Books in the British Library by Adrian S. Edwards (electronic British Library Journal article, no. 9, 2005)
A wide range of work by private, fine and hand presses can be found in the collections, including the Ansel Adams collection of American fine press material, which was donated to the Library in 1985. There are also significant collections of material published by, or relating to, the Roxburghe and Zamorano Clubs. Contemporary fine printing is well represented, including recent work by the Gehenna, Arion, Bieler and Ninja presses.
The Library has an extensive collection of bibliographical material relating to publishing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and a wide range of other primary research material relating to American bibliography, the history of libraries and of reading. In addition to the standard bibliographies of American imprints such as Evan's Early American imprints 1639—1800, Shaw and Shoemaker's American bibliography and Sabin's Bibliotheca Americana, the various supplements to them, and the National union catalog, the collections also include the catalogues of some of the larger United States libraries such as The New York Public Library and catalogues of other significant special collections.
- Henry Stevens, Catalogue of American Books in the Library of the British Museum, 2 vols. (London, 1859) [11905.g.12].
- I. R. Willison, 'The Development of the United States Collection, Department of Printed Books, British Museum', Journal of American Studies, 1(1), pp. 79-86 [P901/236].
- P. J. Weimerskirch, Antonio Panizzi's Acquisition Policies for the Library of the British Museum, D.L.S. Dissertation, Columbia University, New York (1977), pp. 161-180, 'Americana' [RAR 027.541].
- —Antonio Panizzi and the British Museum Library (Clifton, N.J., 1981) [RAR 027.541].
General queries about finding and using printed books are dealt with by the Library's main Enquiry Service.
Enquiries about the U.S. Collections can be made to the address below. We regret that it is not possible to offer general research advice or undertake complex or lengthy research.
The British Library
96 Euston Road
Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7743
Fax: +44 (0)20 412 7563