University of St Andrews

University Library Special Collections

Rare Books

What makes a book "rare"?

Images from our Rare Books Collection

Our Rare Books Collection includes over 200,000 printed books ranging in date from the 15th to 21st centuries. Like many other institutional collections, much of our stock is in the form of smaller collections of individuals or groups who have given or sold their books to St Andrews over time. The collection as a whole now holds such treasures as the first printed books brought to St Andrews in the 15th and 16th centuries, the first books printed in St Andrews (Archbishop Hamilton’s Catechisme, 1552), exemplary 17th century scientific works and a vast collection of 18th century books that the library acquired via copyright deposit from 1710 to 1836. However, we are often asked just what our criteria is for deciding that a book is rare.

“Rare” or “Special” Collections of books have been identified and kept separate from the Library stacks by University librarians since the 17th century. When the collection of Archdeacon of St Andrews William Moore was bequeathed to St Salvators in 1681 it was kept separate from the college’s general library stock and catalogued separately in 1684, and then inventoried in 1692 and 1744 (380 books). St Leonards College also kept separate the following collections: Wedderburn (1679), Scot (1620, re-assembled in 1925-1940), Buccleuch (1645) and Murray (1670), as they were defined as important gifts. Several other collections were defined as “special” when the entire University Library was reclassified in 1925, including the collections of Von Hugel, Donaldson and J.D. Forbes.

The Rare Books Collection today is comprised of material that has been purchased, donated or transferred from Main Library stock which meets six standard criteria:

  • Age
  • Important or collectible first editions/seminal works
  • Scarcity in other research libraries
  • Market value
  • Physical and intrinsic characteristics
  • Condition


Any books donated, purchased or transferred from the Main Library’s collections that have been printed before 1860 (inclusive) is considered a “rare” book. Most libraries impose some kind of general, blanket cut-off date which corresponds with the industrialisation of the printing press (i.e. a move from hand-press to steam- or power-press). The cut-off date chosen by St Andrews is about 15 years after the invention of the steam powered rotary press (the first that was able to produce hundreds of thousands of copies of a page per day) and therefore allows the Rare Books Collection to include books from the infancy of the industrial period.

There are also other “regional incunabula,” or examples of printing from geographic regions in which printing was introduced at a much later date. For example:

                -items published in the Confederate States of America (1860-1865)

                -South Korea -1900 (first printing press in Seoul not until 1883)

                -Greenland-1900 (first printing press in 1860)

Also, in addition, the importance of the age of an object is relative to the development of the discipline it documents. For example, special collections that focus on modern science or medicine collect twentieth-century journals containing seminal research articles in those fields. (e.g. A.R. Wallace and Darwin in the Linnean Society, &c.)

Important or collectible first editions/seminal works

Collectible first editions or seminal or important works in their fields of study (e.g. first editions of books like Terry Street or On growth and form are also often added to the Rare Books Collection regardless of their date). The Library always checks to make sure that further editions of a work are available for the general circulating collection, however because of the collectability of these early editions and their potential market value they are more suited for the secure environment of special collections.

Scarcity in other research libraries

If a book is donated, purchased or found on the main library’s shelves printed after 1860, the next criterion we consider is how scarce it is in other research libraries regionally, nationally and internationally. By comparing our holdings to other institutions on COPAC and WorldCat, librarians can quickly compare St Andrews holdings to most higher education institutions. If a book is found to be scarce (five copies or fewer) and matches other criteria, then it may be considered ‘rare’.

Market value

The University Library is aware of the costs of replacing books stolen from its open shelves. If a book is ordered, donated or found to be worth over a pre-determined market value, then it may be considered for transfer to the Rare Books Collection. This is solely at the discretion of the Rare Books Librarian.

Physical and intrinsic characteristics/Condition

Careful consideration is given to books donated, purchased or found on the main library shelves which have some physical connection to someone important or on a special occasion (e.g. books owned by D’Arcy W. Thompson or Willa Muir). These books, treated as physical artefacts, help tell the story of the University of St Andrews and so are transferred to the Rare Books Collections.

If a book is actually a portfolio of loose plates or has the potential of pieces being easily removed if circulated, then transfer to Rare Books will be considered as well.

Reference works and periodicals may be candidates for transfer especially if facsimile or other reprint editions are available to replace them on the open shelves. Examples of particularly relevant documents include: reports of nineteenth-century scientific discoveries and expeditions, government publications containing maps or plates, ethnographic reports, and documents produced during major historical events (e.g. federal regulations for World War II internment camps).


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.