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British Printed Collections, 1501-1800

The holdings of pre-1801 printed materials from the British Isles are the largest in the world, and every effort continues to be made to increase and enhance them by means of purchase and donation.


Substantial numbers of antiquarian English books, journals and ephemera were received with the large foundation collections of the British Museum Library, in particular as part of the Old Royal Library and the private library of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753). In subsequent years, these holdings were strengthened by the acquisition of other major collections, notably:

From Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes

From Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (London, Andrew Crooke, 1651), shelfmark: 522.k.6. © The British Library Board.

Entries for all these collections can be found in the directory of Named Collections of Printed Materials.

Since the mid-19th century, the early British holdings have been systematically developed and expanded by on-going purchases. As a result, the collections today contain a wide range of materials of potential use to the researcher, including:

There is an especially strong collection of early editions of plays by William Shakespeare. Twenty-one plays (in 93 copies) issued in the 'quarto' format before the closure of the theatres in 1642 have now been fully digitised and these images are now freely available via Treasures in full: Shakespeare in Quarto.


Records for early British books, journals and printed ephemera can be found in Explore the British Library. They also appear in printed editions of the catalogue: more information about these is given in Catalogues of Early Printed Materials in the British Library.

In addition, the Library's antiquarian British collections are strongly represented in the following printed union catalogues:

  • Catalogue of the Books in the Library of the British Museum Printed in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and of Books in English Printed Abroad, to the Year 1640, edited by G Bullen (3 vols.; London, 1884).
  • A Short-Title Catalogue of books printed in England, Scotland, & Ireland, and of English books printed abroad 1475-1640, first compiled by AW Pollard and GR Redgrave, 2nd ed. revised by WA Jackson, FS Ferguson and KF Pantzer (3 vols.; London, 1976-1991).
  • Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and British America and of English Books Printed in Other Countries, 1641-1700, compiled by D Wing, 2nd ed. revised by JJ Morrison et al. (3 vols.; New York, 1982-1994).
  • British Newspapers and Periodicals, 1641-1700: A Short-Title Catalogue of Serials Printed in England, Scotland, Ireland, and British America, compiled by C Nelson and M Seccombe (New York: MLA, 1987).

Copies of these catalogues can often be found in academic and larger reference libraries. At the British Library in London, there are copies of each on the open shelves in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room at shelfmark: RAR094.20941.

English Short Title Catalogue

The English Short Title Calalogue (ESTC) is an online international union catalogue which aims to describe books, pamphlets and periodicals printed in the English-speaking world from 1473 to 1800. The Library's holdings of pre-1801 British materials are heavily represented in the database. Further information on the project and on how to access the data is given on the English Short Title Catalogue webpages.

Microforms and Digital Surrogates

The Library's antiquarian British collections are reproduced in large numbers in the following published microform series:

  • Early English Books, 1475-1640 (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI, [work in progress]).
  • Early English Books, 1641-1700 (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI. [work in progress]).
  • Early English Books, Tract Supplement (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI. [work in progress]).
  • The Eighteenth Century (Woodbridge, Conn.: Research Publications, [work in progress]).

These microform series are often held by academic libraries. There are full sets at the British Library in London.

Digital images of many early English printed books held at the British Library also appear as part of Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO), web-based subscription services provided by ProQuest and Gale Group respectively. These aim to provide online access to facsimiles of selected pre-1801 English books listed in the English Short Title Catalogue. Many academic libraries subscribe to EEBO and ECCO. They are available to British Library readers in London through the Electronic Resources computers in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room.