Collections

Over 97% of the collections, which now number a million volumes, is available for loan, and is stored on 17 miles of open-access shelves, which may be freely browsed.

 

SCOPE OF THE COLLECTIONS

When the Library opened its doors in 1841 the collection consisted of only 3,000 books. Today we hold over 1 million volumes and continue to add around 8,000 new ones every year.

Three broad areas form the heart of the collection where subject coverage is particularly strong:

History

  • From ancient to modern: political, ecclesiastical, topographical, constitutional, social, economic, military...

Cultural expression

  • Literature, language, fine & applied arts, performing arts...

Thought & life

  • Philosophy, religion, folklore, social science, political science, political economy...

The emphasis of these core collections is on Europe and the West, reflecting the world view of our Victorian founders, but other areas of the world – particularly the USA and Commonwealth countries are well represented.

Alongside the core subject areas there is a wealth of ‘niche’ subjects, with something on almost any topic that comes to mind - from the rigging of pirate cutters in the Napoleonic era to the design of alms-houses; from the history of Tupperware to the care and uses of camels.  

All subjects are strongly supported by works of biography and bibliography, the back-runs of over 2,700 periodicals, and a growing range of electronic journals and databases .

In the arts and humanities, older publications retain an interest and value and may be just as relevant to ongoing scholarship as newer works.  Retention of stock is, therefore, a key principle of our collection development policy and the collection encompasses published works from 1500 to the present day

We believe that older works should be kept alongside more recent ones to reveal how a subject has developed or changed over time. For the most part, therefore, old and new titles are housed together in their subject categories and can be borrowed and freely browsed on our open bookstacks.

This combination of the collection’s extraordinary range and depth facilitates cross-disciplinary study and makes serendipitous discovery a constant delight.

Some 40,000 of the Library’s oldest, rarest, most valuable and vulnerable items are carefully secured within closed stacks, forming our Special Collections, but remain readily available for consultation. The result of the Library’s determination to acquire the most important publications from each generation, they represent a microcosm of the whole collections and include extraordinary rarities.

"A WRITER'S DREAM"

Andrea Wulf

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