Rare booksThe University Library contains approximately 200,000 volumes of rare and older books, acquired by purchase and gift, since its foundation in the 15th century. The libraries of the colleges of St Leonard, St Salvator and St Mary, founded before that of the University itself, formed the first collections of books within the institution, and these were incorporated into the main library in the 18th century. The University library itself was founded by royal gift in 1611-12, when King James VI and I and members of his family presented over 200 volumes to the University to mark the founding of the Common Library.
From 1710 to 1837 the Library was entitled to a copy of every book printed in Britain under the Copyright Deposit Act, as a result of which it is particularly strong in 18th century material, with a special emphasis on books relating to the Scottish Enlightenment. The copyright privilege was lost in 1837, but the Library has continued to purchase rare books, particularly in fields related to the University's teaching and research.
The main subject areas of the collections are theology, classics, history, English and Scottish literature, philosophy, science and medicine. There are about 150 incunabula, 5,000 16th century, 7,000 17th century, as well as a substantial general collection of 18th and 19th century items.
Notes on the history of the early library by RV Pringle.
Material on microform
The importance of these collections has been greatly enhanced in recent years by the purchase of a large amount of material on microforms. The Library now holds the entire STC microfilm project (some 30,000 titles), and is acquiring the Tubingen Flugschriften (part 1, 1500-1530 [complete] and part 2 1530-1600 [ongoing]). Other collections relating to the Reformation in France and Switzerland have recently been purchased.
The majority of the rare books collections can only be found in the manual, guard-book catalogue, available in the University Library only. Thanks, however, to a number of externally funded projects, records for these books are increasingly being added to the Library's on-line catalogue, and all new acquisitions are now catalogued on-line only. As well as the usual author / title / subject searches, SAULCAT allows you to look for information about printers and publishers, illustrators and illustrations, bindings, former owners, etc.
What counts as a rare book?
Everything printed before 1901 is administered by the Special Collections Department. 1861-1900 items can normally be read elsewhere in the Library or borrowed, while everything printed before 1861 and some special later items such as private press books, limited editions and books with important former owners must be read in the Special Collections Reading Room.
In the catalogue rare books are identified in the following ways:
- The prefix to the classmark will help you to know whether you must ask for a book in the Special Collections Department. If the prefix is 's', and the book is printed before 1901 ask in Special Collections, otherwise the book should be on the open shelves.
- Various three-letter prefixes such as 'Bib', 'Don','Hug' and 'StA' also denote special collections. Exceptions are 'Cat', 'Ref' and 'Dic' which are normally open-shelf collections.
- Classmarks with the prefix 'r' and 'rf', 'rff' and 'rfx' also denote special collection items.
When enquiring about a rare book, please always include the date of publication and the classmark prefix.