Rare Books and Music

Desks and Readers in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room at the British Library

The Rare Books and Music Reading Room is on the 1st floor at St Pancras and has a wealth of information and resources to help you in your research.

It is the enquiry point for all of the Library's collections pre-1851 printed books in English and other West European languages, together with the national reference collections of printed music and post-1500 music manuscripts.

In the Rare Books and Music Reading Room you can access a range of special collection materials including:

  • Pre-1851 printed books
  • Sales catalogues (including the archival set of Sotheby’s auction catalogues 1739–1970)
  • Printed music scores
  • Post-1500 Music manuscripts
  • Pre-1831 newspapers
  • Playbills and other collections of ephemera
  • Use our catalogues to order items from our extensive reference collection
  • View our extensive open access collection material
  • Access online databases and electronic books and journals

Reference enquiries

If you need help, ask our reference specialists at the Enquiry Desk. They can:

  • Guide you to the most appropriate material for your research
  • Advise you on how to access and use our printed and electronic collections most effectively
  • Help you to use our catalogues and answer your bibliographic enquiries
  • Suggest other libraries, archives and institutions that you might find useful in your research, or guide you to relevant websites and free online resources
  • Provide a range of free Reader sessions and 1-2-1 consultations to help you find your way around the collections and to make the best use of them.

If your enquiry requires more specialist help than we can provide we will forward your enquiry to the appropriate person in the British Library or suggest alternative sources.

If you are unable to visit you can contact the Rare Books Reference Team or the Music Reference Team directly, use our Quick Chat service, or get in touch via Twitter.

Some very rare items have been restricted, which means that they can’t be requested to the Reading Room in the normal way. Often an alternative copy (in digital format or on microfilm) will be available, and staff at the Reference Enquiry Desk will be able to provide further information about this. If you need to apply to view an original restricted item please speak to a member of staff on the Reference Desk or contact the Rare Books Reference Team.

Items on shelves in this Reading Room

  • Printed catalogues of the British Library (to 1975), the British Museum (1813–19 and 1881–1900), the Grenville Library, the King’s Library, the Newspaper Library and the Manuscript collections
  • A microfilm set of the Burney Collection of 17th and 18th century newspapers and a manuscript catalogue of this collection
  • Published guides to major microfilm collections
  • Reference works relevant to the study of early printed books, including works on book collecting, bibliographies and catalogues of printed books, the history of printing, literature
  • Runs of periodicals and annuals relevant to the study of early printed books, including The Book Collector (from 1952), The Gentleman’s Magazine (1731–1868), Journal of the Printing Historical Society (from 1965), The Private Library, Private Press Books (from 1959), Publishing History (1977 onwards) and Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society
  • Collected editions of scores, including Early Church Music (London: Stainer & Bell), Musica Britannia (London: Stainer & Bell), Beethoven Werke (München; Duisburg : G. Henle Verlag, 1961–), G.F. Handel’s Werke [ed. Chrysander] (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1859–1903) Neue Mozart Ausgabe sämtlicher Werke (Kassel: Bärenreiter), selected volumes of The Collected Works of J.C. Bach (New York; London: Garland Publishing, c.1985)
  • Reference works relevant to the study of music, including works on music libraries and librarianship, music publishing, music catalogues, the history of music, collected biographies of musicians, national music, jazz, vocal music and opera, musical instruments and composer monographs
  • Limited runs of music journals including the Musical Times, Early Music, Brio, Fontes, Music & Letters


Can I take photographs of British Library material?

You can use your own phone, tablet or compact camera to photograph some of our collections

Can I copy material in the Reading Rooms?

There are a range of options available to copy our material

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