Major named collections of printed books

An engraved panoramic view of the Round Reading Room at the British Museum in Bloomsbury, London in the 19th century. It is published as an illustrated plate in 'Free Public Libraries, their organisation, uses and management' by Thomas Greenwood and published by 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

Evidence of connections to slavery, profits from slavery or from colonialism

The British Library has made a commitment to its staff and its users that it will become an actively anti-racist organisation, and will take all the necessary steps required to make this promise a reality.

Some items now at the British Library, previously owned by particular named figures cited on these pages, are associated with wealth obtained from enslaved people or through colonial violence.

As part of the Library’s ongoing work to interpret and document the provenance and history of the printed collections under our care, curators in the Printed Heritage Collections team have undertaken some research to identify these. The aim is to share knowledge with researchers, so that they can judge whether these aspects are important to their understanding of the circumstances behind the creation of individual collections. The Library is committed to openness around the provenance of the collections in our care and we recently published the initial findings from this research.

However, we acknowledge that the presentation of these findings has caused confusion and concern, which was absolutely not our intention. We have therefore temporarily removed the document and the research will be re-published on these pages once a review has been completed.

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 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