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

Get a Reader Pass

A guide to how to obtain a British Library Reader Pass to use our Reading Rooms

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

How to order images

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

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

How to get a Reader Pass if you are under 18

How to apply for an under 18 Reader Pass

Find papyri

How to identify papyri and request them

Find and request Lord Chamberlain's Plays

How to locate items in our largest single manuscript collection

Find charters, rolls, and seals

How to access medieval and early modern European documentary collections