An early nineteenth century English gold and blind tooled black goatskin binding over sculpted boards and incorporating bosses and medallions of King George III and the Prince Regent. British Library shelfmark C.188.b.80
An early nineteenth century English gold and blind tooled black goatskin binding over sculpted boards and incorporating bosses and medallions of King George III and the Prince Regent. British Library shelfmark C.188.b.80

We have one of the world’s leading collections of fine and historic bookbindings, both dispersed individually throughout the Library and in discrete specialist collections.

About the collection

The wide-ranging collection includes examples from throughout the world. British and European bindings are particularly well represented but there are also examples from the Near and Far East and from the Americas.

Many interesting bindings can be found in the Old Royal Library (books formerly owned by the English monarchs from Edward IV to George II), the King's Library of George III, and in the libraries of individual collectors such as Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode and Thomas Grenville.

What is available online?

Since 1997 the Library has been compiling a freely available Database of Bookbindings particularly rich in Western European printed books. The database, which includes detailed images, is a work in progress with records being added on a regular basis. Only bindings that are in good condition and suitable for digitisation are included in the database, so some significant bindings are not represented.

Images of many of the bindings within the Library’s manuscript collections can also be seen on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Many reference works about bindings are available on open access in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room. 

The vast majority of the Library’s bindings are dispersed throughout the printed books collections and these can be ordered to the Reading Rooms using Explore the British Library. Binding notes in the catalogue are not comprehensive but notable bindings can be found by name of binder and/or descriptive term (e.g. embroidered).

Some individual collections of bindings can also be found on Explore the British Library. These include the Charles Ramsden Collection of ca. 1,500 signed bindings from the 18th and 19th centuries, and the Franks Collection of 260 armorial bindings from the 16th to the 18th century.

Other collections have restricted access and can only be consulted with special permission by the Curator of Bookbindings. These include the Olga Hirsch Collection of decorated papers, the Henry Davis Gift (a collection of 890 bindings dating from the 12th to the 20th century) and the John Jaffray Collection of binding trade material.

What is available in other organisations?

Noteworthy bindings can be found in special collections throughout the world. A number of holding libraries have created websites through which their bindings can be viewed in great detail. These include:

A comprehensive list of libraries that hold significant collections of armorial bindings can be found on the British Armorial Bindings database (hosted by the University of Toronto).

Further information

Beautiful Bookbindings by P.J.M. Marks (British Library, 2011) features a selection of bindings from the British Library collection, ranging from the medieval to the contemporary.

How to guides

Guide to Explore Archives and Manuscripts

A guide to help you use the catalogue, covering: login, search, how to manage your results, how to browse the collections and how to request items

How to reuse images of unpublished manuscripts

Guide to the copyright of unpublished documents

About Explore Archives and Manuscripts

With Explore Archives and Manuscripts you can search for information about our rich and unique archive and manuscript collections.

Access manuscripts and archives

Accessing manuscripts and archives and obtaining a Letter of introduction or recommendation

Get a Reader Pass

Access over 170 million collection items for free with a Reader Pass.

Guide to researching provenance of books now in the British Library

Where do the British Library’s old printed books ‘come from'? Who owned or read them in centuries past? Why does it matter?

Using the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC)

How to use the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC)

How to order images

Instructions on how to order images of the British Library's collections from our Imaging Services

Find charters, rolls, and seals

How to access medieval and early modern European documentary collections

Find and request Lord Chamberlain's Plays

How to locate items in our largest single manuscript collection

How to handle folded items

Find out how you should hand items like large maps and book inserts.

Find papyri

How to identify papyri and request them

How to handle archives

Watch our guide and help us keep our archive material in good condition

How to get a Reader Pass if you are under 18

How to apply for an under 18 Reader Pass

What collection items can I view online?

You can see books, manuscripts, maps, playbills, scores and much more. Researchers can use our collection of electronic resources and databases to help them find material relevant to their research.

Can I take photographs of British Library material myself?

You can take photos of our collection items yourself in British Library Reading Rooms

Can I copy material in the Reading Rooms?

What you need to know about copying British Library collections in our Reading Rooms

How to handle books

See the techniques you should use to keep our books in good shape.

How to handle rolled items

We show how you should unroll items like scrolls, rolls and maps.

Using gloves with books and manuscripts

Should you wear gloves? Here's some advice to help you decide.

Conditions of Use of British Library Reading Rooms

You need to follow some rules if you want to use our Reading Rooms