Travel and exploration: archives and manuscripts, 1600 - present day

Watercolour topographical view of the Rocks of Martinvas
'Rocks of Martin Vas [Ilhas Martin Vas] bearing WSW 2 or 3 miles. Trinidada [Ilha da Trinidade] WS9 or 10 leagues', unknown artist

The Library's archive and manuscripts collections are a rich resource for the study of travel and exploration from the 1600s onwards

About the collection

The British Library holds a wide range of archives and manuscripts invaluable for the study of British travel, tourism and exploration across the globe, from 1600 to the present day. These include ships’ logs, observations and records of expeditions, personal diaries, correspondence, maps, artworks and photographs. All regions are covered, from the British Isles to the Antarctic. The records of the East India Company (1600-1858) and the India Office (1858-1947) and related private papers complement the main collection: they document British colonial expansion, and focus on travel to, from and within the Indian subcontinent and Asia more broadly. Many of the accounts document the acquisition of objects, manuscripts and artworks which are held in European heritage institutions, including the British Library.

Highlights include:

  • Explorers' records, including diaries, correspondence, maps and artworks of Sir Joseph Banks, James Cook, David Livingstone, Albert Hastings Markham, Sir Richard Francis Burton, and Robert Falcon Scott.
  • Logbooks and other records of sea voyages, including the maritime records of the East India Company, and the draft log-book of HMS Victory (1805-1806).
  • Diaries and letters documenting the experience of 18th century travellers taking the Grand Tour of Europe, such as Bishop Berkeley, Richard Pococke, Lady Georgiana Spencer, Lord Morley, Ann Flaxman, née Denman, and others.
  • Numerous manuscript accounts of tourism and travel in the British Isles, such as those described by Rosemary Sweet in her article on “Domestic Tourism in Great Britain”.
  • Personal accounts of travel throughout Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas, particularly during the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, including many travel accounts by women.
  • Accounts of journeys made as part of British diplomatic, military and scientific expeditions, from the early modern period to the mid twentieth century.



What is available online?

You can find catalogue entries for modern archives and manuscripts on our Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue. Some manuscripts have been digitised in full: they can be seen in their entirety on Digitised Manuscripts and selected images are available in the Online Gallery.

Captain Cook’s voyages are the subject of the British Library’s online exhibition, which includes articles, art and maps from the voyages.

See the guide to India Office Records and Private Papers for details of collections that have been digitised as part of various projects - the Botany in British India Project, Find My Past British in India Collection, and the Qatar Digital Project.

Some remote E-resources are available onsite to registered Reader Pass holders, such as Adam Matthew Digital’s packages, The Age of Exploration and The Grand Tour.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Archives and manuscripts can be searched in Explore Archives and Manuscripts, and consulted in the Manuscripts Reading Room. You can see India Office Records and Private Papers in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room, and some maps and charts in the Maps Reading Room. You can also view digital and microform surrogates in the Reading Rooms.


What is available in other organisations?

The National Archives at Kew holds Royal Navy officers’ and ships’ logs, and medical officers’ journals. See the TNA Guide to Royal Navy logs and Guide to logs and journals of ships of exploration.

The Royal Geographical Society collections include printed books and journals, manuscripts, expedition reports, maps, artefacts, photographs, artworks and film, with particular strengths in the 19th-20th period.

The Scott Polar Research Institute Archives hold one of the largest collections of manuscript and other unpublished material relating to British activity in the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

The National Maritime Museum Caird Library and Archive has rich nautical collections, including ships logs.

The School of Oriental and African Studies Library Special Collectionsinclude personal papers and photographic collections of missionaries travelling overseas. The Library also hosts the Mundus gateway to missionary archives.

The Wellcome Library holds papers of medical travellers, including journals of exploration and experiences of naval surgeons. See the Wellcome Library’s Archives and manuscripts Guide to Sources on Locations and Travel.