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Subject access to early printed materials in the British Library

It is not easy to find early printed books on particular subjects in British Library. The main resources which do exist are described below. Most reference works cited can be found on the shelves of the British Library's Reading Rooms in London. Exact shelf locations can be found by searching Explore the British Library (use the 'Catalogue Subset Search' option and search in the file Humanities and Social Sciences Open-Acess Reference Books. Reference Enquiry Desk staff may be able to suggest further resources relevant to your particular field of research.

There is also a web page about early printed science material.

The British Library's main catalogues

Early printed books acquired and catalogued before the mid-1970s were not subject indexed, although you will find material if you search by the names of people or organisations.

If you search by 'Any Word' (i.e. keyword) in Explore the British Library, you should find early books with a title (or series title) which encapsulates the work's subject matter. 

Published subject indexes

From 1881, the British Museum Library published subject indexes of recently acquired contemporary books. Many volumes have titles in the style Subject index of modern works added to the British Museum in the years 1881-1900. Publication of these subject indexes continued until the latter part of the 20th century. These indexes are essential for gaining subject access to late-19th century books. Copies are often available in larger reference and academic libraries. A full set is provided in the British Library's Rare Books and Music Reading Room (shelfmark: RAC). There is no online access to these indexes.

For books printed before the late 19th century, a series of general subject indexes were compiled by R A Peddie. They have titles in the style Subject index of books published up to and including 1880: A-Z. There are four volumes, published from 1933 to 1948. Each covers the same range of dates, and lists newly found material not previously described. The volumes contain references to books consulted in several libraries, and unfortunately the entries do not state where each item was found. They do however rely heavily on the holdings of the British Museum Library. Copies may be available in larger research libraries. A set of the 1962 reprints is shelved in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room (shelfmark: RAC).  

Specialist early book catalogues

For books from the English-speaking world printed before 1800, the international English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) is an essential resource. All catalogue entries relating to pre-1701 books contain Library of Congress Subject Headings and many, but not all, entries for material dating from 1701-1800 have been subject indexed. The British Library's holdings of material described in the ESTC are good, and are supplemented by digital facsimiles and microfilms of early books held in other libraries. 

Wider in scope is the CERL Heritage Printed Book Database (HPB). This is an integrated file of library catalogues and international bibliographies describing Western materials printed before around 1830. Not every institution that contributes to the HPB Database uses subject indexing terms in its records. Nevertheless, a subject search carried out on the database should find a reasonably large number of citations, which can then be cross-checked against the General Catalogues of the British Library. The HPB Database is available in many larger research libraries. Access to the database is provided in the British Library's Rare Book and Music Reading Room through the Electronic Resources PCs.

For early books printed in the English-speaking world, three catalogues include extensive subject indexes:

  • Bibliotheca Britannica, by Robert Watt (4 vols. Edinburgh, 1824).
    Copy in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room (shelfmark: RAR090.16).
  • Catalogue of 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 (3 vols. London, 1884).
    Copy in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room (shelfmark: RAR094.20941 BL).
  • Eighteenth-century British books : a subject catalogue extracted from the British Museum General Catalogue of printed books (4 vols. Folkestone, 1979).
    Copy in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room (shelfmark: RAR094.30941).

For 17th-century German books, there is the Catalogue of books printed in the German-speaking countries, and of German books printed in other countries, from 1601 to 1700 now in the British Library (London, 1994). Copy in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room (shelfmark: RAR094.20943 BL).  

Named collections and their catalogues

Many of the libraries formed by collectors of the past are still kept together as discrete entities within the British Library. These frequently have a subject focus which reflects the interests of collector. For example, the numerous volumes of pamphlets and newspaper cuttings compiled by Sir Edwin Chadwick (1800-1890) are all relevant to the study of public health and sanitation. Other collections may only contain material printed during a specific period or in a particular format (e.g. playbills, ballads or press cuttings). The collection of mid-17th-century English pamphlets formed by George Thomason (d. 1666) contains material on many different subjects. There is however a useful catalogue which includes an index of people, places and selected subjects. Details of special collections in the British Library associated with named individuals can be found in the directory of named collections.  

Subject bibliographies

It is sometimes possible to find a published bibliography which focuses exclusively on early books in a particular subject. Examples include English cookery books to the year 1850 and English maritime books printed before 1801. Alternatively, you may find that a more general subject bibliography contains citations for both early and modern materials. Volumes in the ABC Clio World Bibliographical Series on countries of the world are examples of this. Subject bibliographies are often available in larger reference and academic libraries. At the British Library, they are often on the open shelves in either the Humanities Reading Room or the Rare Books & Music Reading Room. 

Catalogues of subject-based libraries

Many libraries only collect materials in a limited range of subjects. Their catalogues can therefore act as subject bibliographies. To find authors publishing on medical matters in early modern Europe, for example, you could consult the catalogue of 17th-century books in the National Library of Medicine, Washington DC. For early architectural books, the catalogue of pre-1840 materials at the library of the Royal Institute of British Architects may help. Copies of several such catalogues can be found in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room at the British Library, and also in many larger reference and academic libraries.

Other resources

Others have probably carried out research in a field related to yours, and may have made their findings known in an academic book, an article in a scholarly journal, or a dissertation submitted to a university. These will document what early materials others have found, and where they found it. Modern academic books can be found by searching the Explore the British Library, or the catalogues of other large research libraries. Journal articles and dissertations can be found by consulting subject-based abstracting and indexing tools. 

Finally, published microfilm and microfiche series which reproduce early materials can often help in tracing books on particular subjects. The series themselves may well focus on a particular subject, and they are normally accompanied by printed guides with indexes. An example of a well-indexed microfilm series is the History of Women, which reproduces printed and manuscript materials from several libraries in the United States. Even where printed guides do not contain especially useful indexes, they may suggest the names of writers working in your field of research, and the British Library may hold examples of their work. The reader guide Research Microform Collections in the Humanities (PDF format) lists some of the more important microfilm and microfiche series held at the British Library in London.