University of St Andrews

University Library Special Collections

Rare Books


600 Years of Collecting

Images of our Rare Books Collection
1144 Robert, bishop of St Andrews, founds an Augustinian priory at St Andrews to serve the cathedral and endows it with all his books. The University Library today holds manuscripts and printed books in its collections with ownership inscriptions from the priory library.
 1416 First known reference to the acquisition of books by the university. On 17 January 1416 the Faculty of Arts agreed to send £5 to Paris to buy texts of Aristotle and commentaries on his logic and physics. Unfortunately, in May the money was reallocated to help pay for the new faculty mace, and the purchase of books was postponed.
 1456       First known reference to a library in the sense of a room where books are stored. On 13 August 1456 the Faculty decided there should be a wooden lectern for books in a small room at the end of the 'big school'. This was presumably what was known as the 'pedagogy' of the Faculty of Arts on the south side of South Street, endowed by Bishop Wardlaw in 1430. Two graduates of St Andrews, Alan Cant and John Dunnyn, give gifts of books to the new library.
 1496 Alexander Inglis, dean of Dunkeld Cathedral and archdeacon of St Andrews, bequeaths 12 volumes, mainly classical texts, to the Faculty of Arts and the pedagogy.
 1512 Foundation of St Leonard's College. There seems to have been considerable overlap in the ownership and use of books between St Leonard’s and the priory, and it is likely most of the surviving books from the priory came into the University by way of St Leonard’s.
 1590s An inventory, probably dating from the late 1590s, of St Leonard’s College's books lists 262 volumes, but concludes 'thair ar sum ma buikis in the Librarie, quilk tyme culd not permit to seik out.'
 1611 Foundation gifts towards a Common Library for the University are received from Archbishop of Canterbury George Abbot and John Johnston, Professor of theology at St Mary’s College.
 1612 Foundation of the Common Library. Gifts of books sent from King James VI and I, Queen Anne, Prince Henry, Prince Charles, and Princess Elizabeth.
 1679 Sir John Wedderburn (1599-1679), regent of St Leonard’s College and physician to Charles I and II, bequeaths his library to the College.
 1687 A manuscript 'Catalogue of Books belonging to the Publick Library of the University of St Andrews' is drawn up by order of the visitation in April. Various lists of purchases and donations of books are also included, for example a list of books bought for the Observatory by James Gregory (1638-1675).
 1710 Between 1710 and 1836 the University Library was one of nine libraries entitled to claim one copy of every book printed in the United Kingdom and registered at Stationers' Hall in London. The implementation of the Copyright Act was never straightforward, however, and the distance between St Andrews and London complicated attempts to enforce it.
 1826 Robert Tullis, printer to the University, produced the first printed library catalogue of the University's collections, in an edition of 150 copies. 
 1836 The new Copyright Act came into force on 20 August 1836. It rescinded the copyright privileges of six libraries, including St Andrews, in exchange for an annual allowance based on averaging the value of the books received under the copyright privilege for the previous three years. After some dispute St Andrews was granted £630 per year.
 1896 Chulalongkorn, King of Siam, presents the first printed Buddhist Tipitaka to St Andrews, now known as the Thailand Collection. 
 1915 Sir James Donaldson (1831-1915), Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University, bequeaths to the University his library of more than 11,2000 volumes, including his manuscripts and papers. The Library Bulletin for April 1915 declared that 'This bequest will doubtless prove to be by far the largest and most valuable gift of books ever received by the Library from an individual donor.'
 1929 The remarkable library of book collector James David Forbes, principal of the United College from 1859 to 1868, is presented to the Library by his son George Forbes. It contains some exceedingly rare scientific texts, now among the library’s most prized possessions.


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

Collection development policy

Discover how the Special Collections Division makes decisions on the development of its rare book collections.

Current projects

Read about the exciting collection projects the Rare Books team is currently working on, and those that have recently been completed.