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Business history collections

This page describes business history material available at the British Library

Business history research

Sources of information for business history research can be found throughout the British Library’s collections. We have trade and business journals, directories, market reports, product brochures and catalogues, company annual reports, company histories, trade cards and advertisements, patents and trade marks.  As well as printed sources we have oral histories, photographs, prints and drawings, a web archive and even some films and tv programmes. As well as sources for research into British business history, you will find much of interest for other countries and regions in our collections.

Several of our special collections will be of particular interest to business history researchers. They are introduced and described below.

Explore our collections

Our main catalogue, Explore the British Library, is a good starting point for business history research, particularly if you are new to the Library. Just be aware that it doesn’t cover all the materials in our collections. There are specialist catalogues or finding lists available online for other materials such as photographs and patents.

To use our collections you will need to visit the British Library at St Pancras and register for a Reader Pass. Before you make your first visit, please check our website for details of how to register.

Get in touch

If you would like to contact us you can Ask the Reference Team.

Discover our special collections

The special collections described here may be of particular interest to business history researchers. 

Trade Literature 

Our Trade Literature collection includes catalogues, leaflets and brochures from more than 12,000 companies. The earliest items in the collection date from the mid-nineteenth century and we continue to collect this material on a small scale. As well as British companies, German, French and American businesses are well represented in the collection. 

The Evanion Collection

The Evanion Collection comprises around 5,000 items including posters, advertisements , trade cards and catalogues from the later part of the 19th century. London is particularly well represented, but the collection includes items from all parts of the UK. Much of this material is too fragile to be handled, but a large proportion of it is digitised and available through our website.

Patents and Trade Marks

We have the largest collection of patents and trade marks in the UK, and one of the largest in the world. Specialist staff are available to help you use the material.

Patents provide an important record of technological development and will identify the individuals and companies who have sought protection for their innovations. Analysis of patent applications made in specific technical fields across time and across national patent systems will inform research into the chronological and geographic development of specific industries and markets. The start date for patent records varies from country to country and in the case of the UK our records date from 1617. Find out more on how to search for old British patents.

Trade mark registration also provides a record of commercial activity by identifying the owners of marks for particular goods and services. The first UK trade mark was registered in 1876. Again researchers can investigate the chronological and geographical development of particular industries and markets by analysing patterns of trade mark registration .

Company annual reports

We have a large collection of annual reports from UK and overseas companies. The collection is particularly strong (8000 plus companies) from the late 1960s to date but we do have many earlier reports. 

Oral histories

 Our oral history collections include several thematic collections which will be of particular interest to business history researchers including

  • Industry, agriculture and employment
  • Business and finance
  • Book trade.
  • Food and drink

UK Web Archive

The websites of almost 1000 UK companies are among the thousands of websites collected since the Archive began in 2004. The Archive also has special “themed” collections such as the Credit Crunch - which covers the period July 2008 to January 2010 and reflects how UK banks, corporations and other institutions were affected by the global financial crisis.