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Music collections: development policy

The following policy operates under the Library's general policy statements about collection development.

The British Library's Music Collections contain about 1.5 million items of printed music and over 100,000 items of manuscript music. They represent a national reference collection which is among the foremost in the world.

The printed collection covers all periods from 1473 to the present day, and all countries. It is strongest in Western music and is probably unrivalled in its holdings of music printed before 1800.

The manuscript collection is of similar breadth and includes manuscript scores, sketches, letters and papers of composers, performers and performing organisations and papers relating to music publishers etc. Some items were acquired with the foundation collections of the British Museum in 1753, and the collection has been supplemented since by many gifts and bequests, and by numerous purchases. Particularly comprehensive are the manuscripts of British music in general and of 20th-century British composers in particular, especially Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Delius, Britten, Tippett, and Maxwell Davies. Taken together these collections make up one of the largest and most comprehensive music research libraries in the world.

In addition to the main reference collection at St Pancras there is a separate collection of about 135,000 items held at Boston Spa specifically for lending purposes, mainly for performance.

As the national library of Great Britain, the first commitment is to the national archive of published music. Steps are taken therefore to police compliance by British music publishers with the legal deposit regulations.

Legal deposit is supplemented by a programme, run in co-operation with music publishers, to microfilm on a selective basis scores available from them only for hire and therefore not subject to legal deposit. These are deposited temporarily for filming and then returned.

The acquisitions budget for printed material is used to supplement legal deposit in the following areas:

  • works of British composers published abroad
  • foreign composers of western art music, collected to varying extents ranging from the comprehensive to the highly selective, depending on the international standing of the composer concerned
  • modern scholarly editions which are likely to be required by users present and future
  • antiquarian music items required to fill important lacunae in the Library's printed music collection, so as to maintain its position as one of the most comprehensive in the world. Special priority is given to filling gaps in the British published archive
  • reference literature essential to support the work of the department and readers

The Library acquires music and music-related manuscripts by purchase, gift and bequest as part of the British musical heritage. These include:

  • the music and papers of pre-eminent British composers (the collection is particularly strong in the output of 20th-century composers)
  • the papers of pre-eminent British musicians and musical organisations such as publishers and performing organisations
  • where it is not possible to collect comprehensively in the above fields (e.g. when a composer's output is held elsewhere or where acquisitions funds are not available), representative materials for pre-eminent British composers
  • representative materials for major foreign composers where the opportunity arises at a reasonable cost (resources are not usually devoted to collecting high-value manuscripts of major foreign composers unless there is a strong link to the national heritage)
  • priority is given to manuscripts which build on or enhance the research value of existing collections


Music Collections
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7772
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7751

E-mail: Ask the Music Reference Team