University of St Andrews

University Library Special Collections

About us

History of the Library

Images the Muniment collection

There have been collections of books in St Andrews for many centuries, associated first with the Augustinian priory whose existence established the town as a place of learning. Early scholars in the University's Faculty of Arts agreed to send £5 to Paris for books in 1416. However the funds were diverted to help pay for the mace. There was a book-room for the faculty's pedagogy on South Street by 1456 and gifts and bequests of books began to be received.

Each of the Colleges of the University had its own collection of books and the library of St Leonard's College, in particular, contained significant collections inherited from the pre-Reformation priory library, books given by Regent Moray in the mid 16th century,and by Principals such as George Buchanan.

There is a legend that Mary, Queen of Scots gave books to found a library here. Sadly, although she did write in her own hand her wish that, should she die in childbirth, her Latin and Greek books were to come to St Andrews, both she and her son James survived. It was due to the support of that son, by then King James VI and I, that a common library was founded in 1612. Foundation gifts came from the Royal family, Archbishop of Canterbury and royal librarian, amongst others. These remain in the collections today.

The building on the South Street site which houses Parliament Hall and the King James Library was begun in 1612. When James visited St Andrews in 1617, he was dismayed to find that the roof was still missing. He gave £1000 which was used to make the building water-tight. It was not until 1642 when covenanter Alexander Henderson gave another £1000, for the perfecting of the library and the public school which was to be used for the solemn meetings of the University, 'to give testimonie of his thankfulness and affection to the floorishing of the universitie in learning', that the building could open and function as a library. The first librarian, John Govan, was appointed in 1643.

The Upper Hall was allocated to Regius Professor James Gregory as his workplace between 1668-1674. In 1773 Dr Johnson visited St Andrews and described the library as 'not very spacious, but elegant and luminous' - it had just been extended and re-modelled to reach the form that the King James Library has today. Collections continued to grow through gift and bequest, and under the Copyright Act of 1709, the University was entitled to claim a copy of any book registered at Stationer's Hall. This explains the depth and extent of our 18th century printed collections. The college libraries were officially integrated into the common library in 1783.

Library extensions were built in 1889-1890 and in 1907-8 as collections continued to grow. In 1925 G H Bushnell was appointed Librarian and introduced the classification system used today. He reconstructed original donations and worked on the manuscript collection, laying the foundations for the Special Collections division of today. Pressure on space and increasing student numbers gave the impetus for a new Library building which was opened on North Street in 1976. This was extensively renovated in 2011-12.

Discover our collections

Learn about the treasures of the Special Collections Division contained in Rare Books, the Archives and the Photographic Collection.

Research enquiry?

If you need assistance with research, have a query about our collections, or would like to know about researching your family history please ask for our help.

Do you need reproductions?

Find out how you can get copies of books, manuscripts or photographs held within Special Collections.