Early printed books

William Caxton's Chaucer.
William Caxton's Chaucer.

Our collection of incunabula (books printed with moveable type before 1501) is one of the largest in the world.

About the collection

There are some 12,500 incunabula at the British Library, which represent about 10,390 editions out of an estimated total of surviving 28,000 editions published in the 15th century. We have over 230 incunabula printed in England of which over 120 are in English.

Some highlights include:

A substantial number of our 16th-century printed books came into the Library with the large foundation collections, and we have added to the collections through regular acquisitions. Our printed books cover every possible subject, including religion, literature, editions of the Classics, editions of the Bible, grammars and dictionaries, and medical and scientific books.

Some highlights include:

  • a copy of William Tyndale's New Testament, printed in Worms in 1526
  • the first edition of Thomas More's Utopia, published in Louvain in 1516
  • An Introduction for to Learne to Swimme, the first printed book on any kind of sport in the English language, printed in London in 1595.

What is available online?

All our incunabula are catalogued in the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC). Our 16th century British books are all catalogued in the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) and in Explore the British Library. A number of the Library's 16th century books have been microfilmed, and digitised copies of the microfilms are available via the subscription databases Early English Books Online (EEBO) and JISC Historic Texts.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

All incunabula and 16th-century printed books can be accessed in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room at St Pancras. A small number of books is restricted and requires curatorial approval. For further information contact rare-books@bl.uk

How to guides

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