Most Western early printed books, periodicals and ephemeral items are described in the Library's main catalogues, including Explore the British Library. There are other resources which may help identify materials produced in particular countries or periods. These are described below.
Collections of books acquired by the Library from named individuals may have their own catalogues or hand-lists. These are described within the appropriate entry in the Library's directory of named collections of printed materials.
The King's Library of George III and collections of Thomas Grenville are two of the most significant of these in terms of the numbers and breadth of early printed materials represented. Catalogues exist for both: Bibliothecae Regiae Catalogus (London, 1820-29) and Bibliotheca Grenvilliana (London, 1842-72). Copies annotated with earliest British Museum Library shelfmarks are shelved in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room (shelfmark: RAC).
The British Library's main catalogues are available as:
The printed editions of the catalogues will be especially useful if you wish to browse through a lengthy or complex heading (e.g. works by a profilic author or editions of the Bible).
15th-century printed materials
Incunabula (books printed before 1501) are listed in the main catalogues, including Explore the British Library. Detailed scholarly descriptions can be found in the Catalogue of books printed in the fifteenth century now in the British (Museum) Library (BMC) (13 v. London, 1908-2007). The Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC), can be used as an index, and also lists copies not described in BMC. Information about these and other resources is given on the web-page of the Early Printed Collections Incunabula Section.
Early English printed materials, 1501-1800
Most early books and periodicals from the English-speaking world held in the British Library (including those from Britain, Ireland and North America) are described in the Library's main catalogues. The English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) describes these in greater detail, and lists in addition many items either omitted from the older catalogues, or else which we have acquired in recent years but which do not yet appear in the general catalogues. The ESTC can also be used as an index to the Library's holdings of early English books on microfilm.
The directory of Named Collections of Printed Collections lists many specialist collections of early English printed materials, and gives details of any publications associated with each. Examples of collections with their own catalogues or hand-lists include those of John Bagford (title-pages and other fragments from English books), David Garrick (English plays), Lord Lumley (an Elizabethan private library), and George Thomason (pamphlets from the English Civil Wars, Commonwealth and Restoration).
Many early newspapers are listed in the General Catalogues, but the largest part of the Library's holdings is contained within the collection based on that of the Revd. Charles Burney. For the present, the Burney Chronological Catalogue (in manuscript) has to be used as an index to this collection. Copies can be found in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room. A small number of early British provincial, Irish and foreign titles is included within the Burney Collection. Many other titles though (previously held at Colindale) are now accessible at St Pancras: pre-1801 printed newspapers are accessible in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room whereas microfilm of these titles (where held) is accessible in the Newsroom.
Early European printed materials, 1501-1800
Early books and periodicals printed in continental Europe and Latin America are listed in the Library's main catalogues. These are supplemented by a series of foreign short-title catalogues describing the Library's holdings by language and period, e.g. A Short-title catalogue of books printed in France and of French books printed in other countries from 1470 to 1600 in the British Museum. The volumes contain useful indexes, such as printers, printing towns and sometimes subjects. Further information about these, and about other catalogues and bibliographies can be found on the web-pages relating to the early Dutch, French, German, Hispanic, Italian and Scandinavian collections.
Early newspapers from the continent of Europe held in print format can be accessed in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room and those titles held on microfilm format can be accessed in the Newsroom.
19th-century printed materials
Books and periodicals printed after 1800 are mostly described in the Library's main catalogues. Ephemeral material is often grouped together under a broad heading, such as the name of a town, institution, publisher or individual; some can also be found under the heading 'Collection' (use a printed edition of the catalogue to find these quickly). The directory of Named Collections of Printed Materials lists numerous specialist collections of 19th-century printed materials, and gives details of any publications associated with each. Examples of collections with their own catalogues or hand-lists include those of JF Dexter (books relating to, and editions of, the works of Charles Dickens), Lady Mary Dickens (translations of works by Dickens), Barry Ono (popular fiction, especially penny dreadfuls), Francis Place (newspaper cuttings on politics and economics), and T.J. Wise (the 'Ashley Library'; original editions of English poets).
All 19th-century newspapers are accessible via the Newsroom at St Pancras. Other parts of the British Library also hold printed ephemera from the 19th century, including trade catalogues, political tracts, and technical pamphlets formerly in the Patent Office Library.
Special categories of material
Separate listings exist for the Library's holdings of early sale catalogues and for the main collection of theatrical playbills:
- List of catalogues of English book sales 1676-1900, now in the British Museum, compiled by AW Pollard (London, 1915; facsimile reprint, 1999). Copies in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room at RAR381.45002 and RAX381.45002.
- Register of playbills, programmes and theatre cuttings [Typescript, 1951]. Copies in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room at RAR792.95 and at the Rare Books Reference Enquiries Desk.
The copies in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room have been annotated with details of additional related materials.
Early Printed Collections
The British Library
96 Euston Road
Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7564
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7691