Modern British history printed sources

'Engine shaft at the 406, Cook's Kitchen Mine', from 'Mongst Mine and Miners (1893) Shelfmark: C.194.b.213.
'Engine shaft at the 406, Cook's Kitchen Mine', from 'Mongst Mine and Miners (1893) Shelfmark: C.194.b.213.

This collection includes material dating from 1600 to date and reflects all aspects of modern British history

About the collection

The origins of the British Library's collection of printed books lie in the foundation of the British Museum in 1753. Books came to the collection from Sir Hans Sloane's library, The Old Royal Library and from books belonging to Major Arthur Edwards. Today there are approximately 250,000 British books printed prior to 1800 held in the collection. Holdings of 19th century printed items are estimated in excess of 1,200,000 books and pamphlets, and at least 300,000 periodical titles. 

Since the late 1870s, monographs and periodicals published in the UK and Ireland have been systematically acquired by the Library through legal deposit. These items form the core of the collection, supplemented by selective purchase and donation. 

The subject coverage is encyclopaedic and reflects every aspect of book production and publishing in the British Isles, Colonial America, the early United States, Canada, and other territories governed by Britain. 

The collection is strong in the output of mainstream publishers, private print and the fine press. It has a good representative range of ephemeral material providing insight into the history of every aspect of the UK and Ireland and covering every historical period. 

Research level publications produced in other countries, in particular North America and Western Europe, complement and strengthen this coverage.

What is available online?


Material is listed in the Library's online catalogue Explore the British Library. Fuller information about material printed before 1801, together with subject headings, can be found in the English Short Title Catalogue [ESTC]. 

More detailed catalogues of some specific collections, such as the Evanion Catalogue with digital images, or the Sloane Printed Books Catalogue are also freely available.

Collection items online 

You can explore unique collection items and expert commentary related to particular periods of British history such as Georgian Britain and Victorian Britain.

Look at printed posters, newspapers, periodicals and monographs covering the rich and diverse history of Asians in Britain, from 1858 to 1950.

Our World War One website provides digital access to items from across Europe, selected from Europeana 1914-1918 together with articles by leading experts and teachers' notes.

Our Renaissance Festival Books website provides digital access to a range of Renaissance books about festivals and ceremonies (many of them relating to royal families) across Europe between 1475 and 1700.

The Untold Lives blog includes many fascinating stories arising from items in these printed collections.  

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Printed material from this collection, and digital and microform surrogates, can be consulted in the Reading Rooms. 

We also provide onsite access to a wide range of relevant subscription databases, many of which include digitised images of material from the British Library's collections. These include: 

Printed reference sources covering an extensive range of subjects can be found on open access shelves in all the Library's Reading Rooms. 

Books in the Humanities Reading Room, the Rare Books & Music Reading Room, the Social Science Reading Room, and the Newsroom are especially useful for the  historian.

What is available in other organisations?

The national libraries of Scotland and Wales have printed collections providing further specialist resources in their respective national printed heritage.

Other legal deposit libraries with strong printed collections for the study of British and Irish history are:

The Institute of Historical Research provides resources for historians, including a major research library and research training.

The Directory of Rare Books and Special Collections provides information on the locations and subjects represented in rare book collections in libraries throughout the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland.

Further information

The Library's Reference Service can help you search for relevant collection items and guide you to useful entry-point reference sources.

How to guides

Get a Reader Pass

Access over 170 million collection items for free with a Reader Pass.

Using the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC)

How to use the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC)

How to reuse images of unpublished manuscripts

Guide to the copyright of unpublished documents

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?

Access manuscripts and archives

Accessing manuscripts and archives and obtaining a Letter of introduction or recommendation

Search the India Office Records for baptisms, marriages and burials

How to search the India Office Records for baptisms, marriages and burials

Find and request Lord Chamberlain's Plays

How to locate items in our largest single manuscript collection

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

About Explore Archives and Manuscripts

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

Family history: a guide to sources

A guide to sources for family history and genealogy research, and where to find them.

How to get a Reader Pass if you are under 18

How to apply for an under 18 Reader Pass

Find European Union information online

Contacts, institutions, news and other information relating to the European Union

Find government publications

If you can’t find a document in our catalogue, ask at the reference desk

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.

Can I take photographs of British Library material myself?

You can take photos of our collection items yourself in British Library 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 need to come to the 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 the British National Bibliography

A guide to help you use the British National Bibliography catalogue, covering: login, search, and how to manage your results

Can I copy material in the Reading Rooms?

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

How to handle books

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