University of St Andrews

University Library Special Collections

About us

History of the Special Collections Division

History of Special Collections

The University has been collecting books and manuscripts, and its own archives, for its entire six centuries, and the photographic collections have been developed since the birth of photography in the early 19th century.

Only recently, however, have our collections been recognised as 'special' and worthy of specialist care. Many of our manuscripts and rare books were on open Library shelves– or in professors' offices  – until well into the 19th century, and we are aware of sad losses to the collections due to unregulated lending, pilfering, and lack of adequate care.

It was recognised that there were items of great curiosity, however, and the Upper Library in South Street (now known as the King James Library) contained 'cabinets of curiosities' which were a tourist attraction as early as the 19th century.

Interest in the Muniments, or institutional archive, had been strong for centuries: we have transcripts and inventories of documents still in our possession made as early as the 16th century, and elements of the modern organisation of the archive still reflect the arrangement imposed upon it in much earlier times.

However, the first coherent archival activity was work undertaken by the University Librarian, James Maitland Anderson, in preparation for significant publications on the history of the University in celebration of the 500th anniversary. His appointment as 'Honorary Keeper of the Muniment Room' in 1925 was the first 'professional' appointment in connection with the University's historic treasures.

In 1959, following large-scale re-organisation of the Library, a manuscripts department was formally established and a Sub-Librarian appointed with a specific manuscripts remit. This post was later amalgamated with the post of 'Keeper of Muniments'. 

It wasn’t until the mid-1970s, with the opening of the new University Library on North Street, that a professional post was created with specific responsibility for the Rare Book Collections (although an assistant to the University Librarian had effectively had this remit since 1925), and a separate Special Collections Department, with dedicated storage and reader facilities was created.

Even in the mid-1990s, the Department was very small, with only three staff maintaining the collections.  Nonetheless, in previous decades much excellent work had been undertaken in adding to the collections, and in organising and cataloguing them, providing a solid foundation on which to build.

Since then, acquisition by gift and purchase has continued and accelerated, investment in cataloguing and other projects has been considerable, largely through external funding, and the use made of the collections has increased enormously, placing them at the heart of the University's research activities.

In 2013 the Department, now with almost 20 full-time posts, was designated a 'Division' of the Library; since 2008 the Head of Special Collections has been an Assistant Director of Library Services.  When, hopefully within the next few years, it realises its aspiration to occupy new, purpose-built accommodation, and will be truly be in a position to allow the wonderful collections in its care to fulfil their potential for the University and world-wide research communities.

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.