Rare Books and Music

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

Find this room on Floor 1 in St Pancras.

Here you can access 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. You can also access pre-1831 newspapers, printed music scores, playbills and other printed items.

Who is the Rare Books & Music Reading Room for?

Anyone can use the Rare Books & Music Reading Room. All you need is a Reader Pass.

Who do we see in this Reading Room? Writers, journalists, historians, academics, undergraduates, postgraduates, musicians, publishers, curators, librarians – book and music lovers of all kinds, in fact.  

Items on the shelves in this Reading Room

Printed catalogues

Printed catalogues of the collections of the British Library (up to 1975), the British Museum (1813-19 and 1881-1900), the Grenville Library, the King’s Library, the Newspaper Library and the Manuscript collection.

Microfilm set of The Burney Collection

The collection of the Reverend Charles Burney (1757-1817) represents the largest single archive of 17th- and 18th-century newspapers in our collection. 

Published guides to major microfilm collections          

 Printed guides to some of the more difficult to use microform collections in the Humanities. A general guide is available at the Reference Desk.

Reference works relevant to the study of early printed books

Including works on early printing, binding, and the book trade, catalogues of specialist printed book collections, books in other libraries, and indexes to published microfilm series.

Runs of periodicals and annuals relevant to the study of early printed books

Titles include The Book Collector (from 1952), The Gentleman’s Magazine (1731–1868), Journal of the Printing Historical Society (from 1965) and Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society.

Collected editions of scores

Complete and partially complete collected editions including Early Church Music, Musica Britannia, Beethoven Werke, G.F. Handel’s Werke, Neue Mozart Ausgabe sämtlicher Werke, Purcell Society Edition and Schoenberg sämtlicher Werke.

Reference works relevant to the study of music

Includes 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

We hold back issue volumes of some of the most esteemed journals on classical music, including the Musical Times, Early Music, Brio, Fontes and Music & Letters.

Items available to order to this Reading Room

Most of our collection needs to be ordered to the Reading Room, often 48 hours in advance, with only limited material available on our open shelves.

Our printed collections (including books and scores) are described on our main catalogue Explore the British Library. Music manuscripts, papers and correspondence are listed on our Archives & Manuscripts catalogue.

A list of specialist online catalogues is available on our website.

Some of the items available to order include:

Named collections

Antiquarian books, journals and other items from the libraries of eminent collectors including King George III, Thomas Grenville, Joseph Banks, Hans Sloane and George Thomason.


An unrivalled collection of 15th-century books produced with moveable type.


A wide range of fine and historic bindings on western books. British and Continental bindings are particularly well represented, although there are also examples from the near and Far East and from America.

Theatre material

Extensive collection early editions of printed plays, playbills and theatre programmes.

Early printed Bibles

We have one of the richest collections of Bibles printed before the 20th century. Examples are from all corners of the western world and from every decade since Johann Gutenberg first produced his Latin Vulgate Bible in Mainz, Germany, during 1454 and 1455.


Numerous examples of erotic printed books from the 17th century to the 20th century, including the Private Case.

Early English newspapers

17th- and 18th- century English newspapers, primarily London titles including the collection of Reverend Charles Burney.

News media from the English civil wars are available on the Thomason Tracts collection.

The original volumes are now in a poor physical state so they can’t be ordered to the Reading Rooms.  Microfilm surrogates or searchable digital images are available in the Reading Room.

Auction sales catalogues

Our collection of current and historic Sale Catalogues from auction houses, art and book dealers include the archival set of Sotheby’s auction catalogues from 1739–1970. 

Composers’ archives

Extensive collections of prominent composers active in Britain like Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams, Musgrave, Holst, Tippett, Britten and Maxwell Davies.

Institutional music archives

Archives of music publishers like Boosey & Hawkes and Novello & Co. Manuscript and performance materials of The Drury Lane Theatre, King’s Theatre and the archive of the Royal Philharmonic Society.

Printed and digital music scores

Examples of printed music from every European country, from the earliest western example in the 15th century to the sheet music produced, sold and consumed digitally. This includes rare first editions of music by the major European composers, numerous collections of dance music from the 17th and 18th centuries and a large collection of Victorian popular music with illustrated plates.

Royal Music Library

Printed and manuscript music scores collected by several generations of the royal household, reflecting the musical tastes of their successive members.

Please note

Some rare, fragile and valuable items have been restricted, which means that they can’t be ordered 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 view an original restricted item, then an application is made to a curator. The process can take a few working days. For more information, please speak to a member of staff on the Reference Desk or contact the Rare Books Reference Team.

Using the Rare Books & Music Reading Room

Anyone with a British Library Reader Pass can access the Rare Books & Music Reading Room.

Get a Reader Pass

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 collection and resources most effectively
  • Help you to use our catalogues and answer your bibliographic questions
  • 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 collection.

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

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


Can I take photographs of British Library material?

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

Get your Reader Pass

All you need to explore our collections is a Reader Pass.

Can I copy material in the Reading Rooms?

There are a range of options available to copy our material

All Help guides