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Literary and theatrical archive and manuscript collections

The British Library holds an unparalleled collection of literary and theatrical materials containing important manuscripts in most European languages, from the 4th century B.C. to modern times. Literary archives and manuscripts are found in a range of formats: from parchment, vellum and paper, to digital media.
Detail from the manuscript for 'Titus Groan' by Mervyn Peake. Add MS 88931/1/3/2 f.70. © The British Library Board/Mervyn Peake Estate.

Detail from the manuscript for 'Titus Groan' by Mervyn Peake. Add MS 88931/1/3/2 f.70. © The British Library Board/Mervyn Peake Estate.

Early and medieval manuscripts

Some of the highlights of this early period include the manuscripts for Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Other key items are the Harley Lyrics, Sloane Lyrics and Sir Orfeo, and manuscripts by Wulfstan, William Langland, John Gower, Margery Kempe, Charles d’Orléans and Robert Henryson.

Modern manuscripts

The PDF guide below lists collections from the 16th century to the present day. Represented are novelists, poets, playwrights, translators, theatre directors, actors, producers, critics and literary agents, as well as corporate archives including those of publishing houses and literary societies.

The guide also provides information on the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection, which comprises all plays submitted for licensing in the United Kingdom between 1824 and 1968, and the Modern Playscripts collection, containing plays from 1968 to the present.

The guide covers many of the Library’s most significant holdings of literary manuscripts and archives (catalogued and uncatalogued), but is by no means an exhaustive record.

Accessing the archive and manuscript collections

These archives and manuscripts are held in the British Library in London. To use them, you must be a British Library registered reader. Registered readers may consult archives and manuscripts in the Manuscripts Reading Room at St Pancras, London.

Catalogued archives and manuscripts held by the British Library are searchable via the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue and can be ordered from the Reservation List page.

Please note that, in general, access will not be provided to material which has not yet been catalogued. Requests for access to uncatalogued material will be decided on a case-by-case basis. Contact the Manuscripts Reference Team for further advice.

For information on restrictions governing access to manuscript material see Consulting Western Manuscripts. Further information on the use and copying of manuscripts is available here: Consulting Western Manuscripts – specific conditions of use.

Theatre Archive Project

The British Library and De Montfort University have been reinvestigating British theatre between 1945 and 1968 from the perspectives of both the theatre-goer and the practitioner. For recordings and transcripts of oral history interviews conducted as part of the Theatre Archive Project see the British Library Sounds website.

Further information

Manuscripts and Maps Reference Team
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7513 / 7702
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7745

E-mail: Ask the Reference Team