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.

This detailed Directory of Western printed heritage collections at the British Library provides more information about early printed items including:

  • background to the collections
  • major named Collections of rare books
  • surveys of Early and Rare Books by Place of Origin
  • surveys of Special Collections by Format
  • thematic and subject composition 
  • distinguishing features
  • provenance
  • specialist catalogues 
  • current shelfmarks
  • bibliographical references

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

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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

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?

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

How to request items not in the catalogue

You can use 'Request Other Items' to order items which have no record in Explore the British Library. Also to order most items found in Expore Archives and Manuscripts.

Guide to Explore the British Library

A guide to help you use the catalogue, covering: login, search, how to manage your results, how to order/view items

Can I take photographs of British Library material myself?

You can now 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

Breaches of British Library Reading Room Conditions of Use

These guidelines outline the British Library’s policies and procedures with regard to breaches of its Reading Room Conditions of Use. They are to ensure consistency in the actions taken in response to such breaches and to define the appropriate roles and responsibilities in the process.

Electronic resources

We collect thousands of electronic journals, books and websites and hundreds of databases. You’ll need to come to the British Library to access the majority of these resources.

Terms of use for Google Books

This page states the terms and conditions surrounding the British Library’s out of copyright books which have been digitised by Google.

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.

Conditions of Use of British Library Reading Rooms

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

Free Discovery and 1-2-1 sessions: 2019

We offer a range of free Discovery and 1-2-1 sessions to help you make the most of your time researching here.

How to handle books

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

Using white gloves with our collection items

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

How to handle rolled items

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