University of St Andrews

University Library Special Collections

Rare Books


Lighting the Past

Members of the Lighting the Past team

Home to a world-class collection of over 200,000 early and rare printed books, the main point of access to the University Library's Division of Special Collections' books is via the online catalogue. Lighting the Past seeks to provide access to the remaining uncatalogued collections, enabling these resources to be accessible and visible to researchers and students alike. These records will also be shared on national and international databases such as WorldCat and COPAC.

Lighting the Past is an innovative approach to large-scale retrospective cataloguing, and will be undertaken in two concurrent phases, described below. All the work is undertaken book-in-hand, ensuring the accuracy of records. The majority of the retro-cataloguing work will be first undertaken to a Phase 1 level, before being upgraded to Phase 2 when time and resources are available.

Phase 1

Our initial goal is to make our resources known to the outside world. We want our Phase 1 records to be quick and efficient, but also bibliographically identifiable. To this end the Phase 1 process has been boiled down to the simplest elements of rare books cataloguing, providing enough information for accurate search retrieval. A typical record incorporates the following elements:

  • author entry
  • full title transcription
  • full imprint transcription
  • a physical description (pagination, illustrations, and height)
  • basic subject entries
  • collection-specific identifiers
  • accurate holdings statement (classmark and itemised barcode)

Despite its simplified process, Phase 1 operates to a defined standard and includes specific elements of quality control. Using this process, it is estimated that a Phase 1 cataloguer can work through 6-8 books per hour.


Led by a full-time rare books cataloguer, the team consists of part-time workers drawn from the undergraduate and postgraduate student body at St Andrews. With a regular turnover expected, our aim is to provide work and specialist training for interested students throughout the term of this project.

Phase 2

Some collections have been identified as being too bibliographically complex, too fragile, or too important to be done at Phase 1 level. These have therefore been set aside for work at Phase 2 level, and include collections such as the Bible Collection, the G.H. Forbes Collection, the J.D. Forbes Collection, and the 17th Century Reserve Collection.

In contrast to Phase 1, records created under Phase 2 will have full descriptions, following the prescribed rules set forth in DCRM(B), an internationally recognised standard set of rules for rare books cataloguing. An example of a Phase 2 record incorporates:

  • full physical description
  • full publication history
  • unique characteristics of the book in-hand (binding, provenance, missing pages, etc.)

Due to the nature of the work involved in handling, describing, and researching these books, accredited rare books professionals are needed. We hope to fund this direct-to-Phase 2 work with a series of project-level grants from local, national, and international philanthropic institutions.



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.