Information Services

Printed Books

Edinburgh University Library’s rare book collections are internationally important and include many books found nowhere else. The Centre for Research Collections (CRC) is an ideal place to conduct research on rare books.


What is a rare book?

We call books rare if they are:

  • Printed before 1850
  • Only known to exist in a few copies
  • Found to have important manuscript annotations or marks of former ownership (provenance)
  • In very fine or contemporary condition, e.g. in an original binding
  • Part of a named special collection, e.g. from the personal library of a notable collector

Why are rare books important?

Rare books provide the raw material for research work. If you are working on a historical topic, rare books can give you precious information about early texts and textual transmission. People also use rare books for what they tell us about their former owners and readers. They are also a source for striking images. We keep and collect rare books to safeguard our heritage and to promote the development of new ideas about the past. Many of the books in our collections have never been studied properly and there are countless discoveries waiting to be made.

How do I see a rare book?

Rare books are stored in rooms which are only open to CRC staff. You can order books for use in the CRC reading room on the 6th floor of the Main Library. Many of the books can be found using the library’s main online catalogue, but you may also need to use the older microfiche catalogue or individual finding lists. CRC staff can help you find particular books.

What sort of rare books do you have?

Our earliest printed book is a commentary on the Chinese Yi Ching, printed in 1440. Our earliest Western printed book, produced using moveable metal type, is St. Augustine's De civitate Dei, printed in about 1468. We have about 300 incunabula (books printed before 1501), many with important provenances and annotations. Early Scottish books are well represented, including the world’s finest surviving copy of the Aberdeen Breviary, the first substantial book produced in Scotland in 1509-1510. The collection is particularly strong in holdings of works relating to the European Reformation, such as the unique copy of Michael Servetus' Christianismi restitutio (1553) formerly owned and annotated by John Calvin, who had Servetus burned. We also have the only copy in Scotland of the first book printed in Gaelic, John Knox's liturgy of 1567.

Edinburgh University Library came into being in 1580 when Clement Litill bequeathed his collection to the new college. Major donations followed including the library of the poet William Drummond in 1626. Early individual donations include a unique copy of one of the first books printed in America, John Eliot’s Indian Primer (1669). The Copyright Act of 1710 gave the library the right to claim a copy of every book published in Britain and Ireland, a right which was maintained until 1837, and which enabled us to build up the bulk of the early modern British collections. There are over 15,000 pre-1801 British or English language books listed on the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) as being in Edinburgh University Library. During the 19th and 20th centuries, we acquired some major collections such as the library of J.O. Halliwell-Phillipps with its Shakespeare quartos. More modern special collections books include poetry pamphlets (the Ramage collection) and translations of the novels of Alexander McCall Smith. We now have over 400,000 rare books and acquire up to 20,000 new items every year.

What are your subject strengths?

We have books on almost every topic and in a range of languages, but we have a number of named special collections which give particular depth to certain areas. Modern literature and poetry is particularly-well represented, with the libraries of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Hugh MacDiarmid and Norman MacCaig, plus the W.H. Auden collection and the Corson Collection of works by and about Sir Walter Scott. The Scottish enlightenment can be studied through the libraries of Adam Smith and Dugald Stewart. Medical, veterinary and scientific books are found in the collections from the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh. There are extensive collections of printed music including the library of Donald Francis Tovey. The history of Edinburgh University is another key area, and we have archive copies of Edinburgh University Press books.

What resources can help people working on rare books?

The online English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) is the best union catalogue for books printed in the English language or in Britain and its dominions before 1801. It is available through the British Library’s website. Edinburgh University Library subscribes to major collections of digitised rare books, particularly Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO). There are also valuable printed resources in our Research Support Collection.

Where else can I look for rare books?

There are important rare book collections elsewhere in the University Library network, particularly at New College. Edinburgh is one of the best places in the UK to work on rare book collections, as it also contains the outstanding collections of the National Library of Scotland.

Who do I ask for help?

If you have enquiries about rare books, it is normally best to contact the Centre for Research Collections helpdesk in the first instance:

Heritage Collections

Contact details

Please note that we do not provide valuations, although we do purchase books and collections that fit our collection development policy.