Major named collections of printed books

The Round Reading Room at the British Museum, from an illustrated plate in 'Free Public Libraries, their organisation, uses and management' by Thomas Greenwood, Simpkin, Marshall & Co.: London, 1886. British Library shelfmark 11902.b.52.
The Round Reading Room at the British Museum, from an illustrated plate in 'Free Public Libraries, their organisation, uses and management' by Thomas Greenwood, Simpkin, Marshall & Co.: London, 1886. British Library shelfmark 11902.b.52.

The British Library's collection of rare books has, in part, grown and developed through the purchase and donation of significant named collections.

About the collection

A large proportion of printed books acquired before the 20th century, and some more latterly, were received as part of a major collection associated with a named individual or institution, whether through purchase, donation or bequest.

Among these are the printed books from the foundation collections of of the British Museum, such as the books that once belonged to Sir Hans Sloane. The early growth of the collection saw other named collections come into the Library including those once belonging to King George III, Thomas Grenville and George Thomason, as well as the royal collections of English monarchs up to George II (the Old Royal Library). 

While some of these named collections have been largely kept together as distinct collections at the British Library (George III, Grenville, Thomason for example), others have not. The database of Sloane Printed Books provides an example of how a prominent historic collection has become dispersed but is now being virtually reconstructed through investigation and research.

Directory of Western printed heritage collections at the British Library

Many of these collections are indicated in the Index of Previous Owners associated with Printed Heritage Collection Items now in the British Library. The List can be used in conjunction with the detailed Directory of Western printed heritage collections at the British Library.  

The Directory provides information about books and printed items through:

  • thematic and subject composition 
  • distinguishing features
  • provenance
  • specialist catalogues 
  • current shelfmarks
  • bibliographical references

What is available online?

While the majority of the Library's holdings can be found in the British Library's online catalogues some material is not yet described online and is only listed in printed catalogues or handlists. 

Most named collections are not identified as 'part of a collection' on Explore the British Library but shelfmarks given in the Directory can sometimes help identify entries for relevant items .Type the shelfmark as one search string with no punctuation and use an asterisk at the end to retrieve records for individual items, for example: searching for 644a*, or 644b*, or 644c* will find copies of playbooks once owned by David Garrick

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Registered Readers can request most items from named collections to the Library's Reading Rooms using Explore the British Library. Some special categories of printed material can only be consulted in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room.

Some original printed items are restricted from general access because they are in a fragile or vulnerable condition. 

Access to a small number of historically important items may be arranged for very specific research outcomes that cannot be satisfied through using recommended substitutes such a microfilm / digital facsimile / alternative print copy. Please contact rare-books@bl.uk for more information.

What is available in other organisations?

Few collections and libraries have remained entirely intact and complete, faithfully representing the original collection. The movement of books through trade, bequest and other methods of dispersal means that books formerly belonging to particular figures or institutions can be found in other library collections or in private collections. The majority of books from a library may be housed together as a collection but it can be expected that other items are held elsewhere. 

Further information

An overview of the historical development of the collection, and its place alongside similar collections in other libraries in the UK, is given in Karen Attar (ed.), Directory of rare book and special collections in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland (London, 2016).


Other essential resources for understanding the origins of printed books in the British Library include:

Specialist help for readers and researchers

Trying to trace and make use of historical collections of printed material can be frustrating and is not always straightforward; specialist reference staff and printed heritage curators can provide assistance. For help in the first instance, contact rare-books@bl.uk 

How to guides

Get a Reader Pass

Access over 200 million collection items for free with a Reader Pass. Carry out research in our Reading Rooms and access our online collections.

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 reuse images of unpublished manuscripts

Guide to the copyright of unpublished documents

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

About Explore Archives and Manuscripts

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

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

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

How to get a Reader Pass if you are under 18

How to apply for an under 18 Reader Pass

Conditions of Use of British Library Reading Rooms

You need to follow some rules if you want to use 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.

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.

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.

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

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.

Can I copy material in the Reading Rooms?

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

Can I take photographs of British Library material myself?

You can now take photos of our collection items yourself in British Library 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.

Find papyri

How to identify papyri and request them