Rare Book collections: Subjects and date ranges

Find out about different aspects of the Rare Book collections on the following pages. They are arranged chronologically or by subject. We also have information about the Microform Research Series, while the highlights section features books or collections of particular interest.

Find out about our special collections of rare books and pamphlets in our online directory of Special and Named Printed Collections.

Chronological list, by category

Chronological list, by category

Books printed before 1501 (incunabula)

The National Library of Scotland holds over 600 15th-century books or incunabula (from the Latin word for 'cradle'). These include the only copy of the Gutenberg or 42-line Bible held in a Scottish library (shelfmark Inc.1) and a number of only-known copies, such as 'Information for Pilgrims', printed at Westminster by Wynkyn de Worde (shelfmark Inc.332). For those studying the birth of printing, we also have a large number of secondary publications about incunabula. The Library takes the microfiche series 'Incunabula', published by Research Publications and other microfilm series such as 'Pre-1601 Italian Books' and the 'Scandinavian Culture Series.'

Not all incunabula are yet in our main catalogue. The best way to find the Library's holdings of incunabula is through the British Library's 'Incunable Short-Title Catalogue (ISTC)', which is available free of charge online in the Special Collections Reading Room, as part of the Heritage of the Printed Book database provided by the Research Libraries Information Network (RLIN). The Library also holds the 'Illustrated ISTC (IISTC)' on CD-ROM, which consists of the complete 'ISTC', with selected entries illustrated with digitised images, published by Primary Source Media.

British books

The Library holds the world's pre-eminent collection of early Scottish books, beginning with the earliest dated Scottish books, printed by Chepman and Myllar in 1508. All known Scottish books printed before 1701 are recorded in H G Aldis, 'A List of Books Printed in Scotland before 1700', revised edition (Edinburgh: NLS, 1970). An updated online version of Aldis is being developed, and an annotated copy may also be consulted in the Library. There are over 6,000 items listed in Aldis. The Library has copies of some 4,200, of which some 780 are the only known copies. Our location symbol in Aldis is 'A', which includes the holdings of the Advocates Library.)

The holdings of early English books are extensive, of early Welsh and Irish books less so. Particular strengths include material relating to the Stuarts printed in England, and Civil War pamphlets, especially those which relate to the Anglo-Scottish conflicts of the 1640s and 1650s. The Haxton Collection, for example, is particularly strong in English Bibles of the 16th and 17th centuries, while the Bute Collection is a very fine collection of early English printed drama.

Finding aids and bibliographies
The Library's own main catalogue does not yet record all our copies of books in the above categories, but this is changing as our old card catalogue is converted into the online catalogue. In the meantime, the quickest way of finding our holdings is to check the online 'English Short-Title Catalogue' (ESTC), which is available free of charge in the Special Collections Reading Room. Our location symbol in ESTC is 'E', but not all shelfmarks are included. It is also worth checking the microfiche of the old card catalogue, also available in the Special Collections Reading Room.

With the exception of uncatalogued collections and newer acquisitions, and without shelfmarks, the Library's pre-1701 British books are believed to be fully recorded as appropriate in the following catalogues:

  • 'STC' = 'A Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, & Ireland, and of English Books Printed Abroad 1475-1640', 2nd ed., 3 vols (London, 1976-1991). Our location symbol in STC is 'E', which includes most of the holdings of the Advocates Library, nearly 4,000 different editions in all.
  • 'Wing' = 'A Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and British America and of English Books Printed in Other Countries 1641-1700', 2nd ed., 3 vols (New York, 1982-1994), of which the Library also has the CD-ROM version, published by Chadwyck-Healey. Our location symbol in Wing is 'EN', including most of the holdings of the Advocates Library, nearly 19,000 different editions in all.
  • 'British Newspapers and Periodicals, 1641-1700: A Short-Title Catalogue of Serials Printed in England, Scotland, Ireland, and British America' (New York, 1987). Our location symbol is 'EN', including most of the holdings of the Advocates Library.

The holdings of STC and Wing items recorded in the above printed catalogues are now in the ESTC, where the records are being expanded and shelfmarks added.

As a library which has held the legal deposit privilege since 1710, our holdings of books published in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland in the 18th century are extensive, the most comprehensive north of Cambridge. Furthermore, since its earliest days the Library has sought to supplement the legal deposit material with purchases of early books, or items which (for whatever reason) were not deposited. The many gifted and deposited named special collections, described in our online directory, have helped to make the Library one of the four biggest repositories of early British books in the UK. The Library holds over 44,000 different editions printed in any language in the British Isles or in English anywhere in the world in the period 1701-1800. Of these nearly 15,000 are books printed in Scotland. These holdings, increasingly with shelfmarks, are recorded in the online ESTC, which is available free of charge in the Special Collections Reading Room. Our location symbol in ESTC is 'E'.

Readers can also access 'Eighteenth Century Collections Online' (ECCO) from computers in the Library, and may apply for a password to obtain remote access. ECCO is a library of some 150,000 digitised and text-searchable books, based on the microfilm series 'The Eighteenth Century'.

The collections include an estimated 250,000 items printed in the British Isles in the period 1801-1900. While the greater part of these represent the copyright intake, many more have been added by purchase, gift or deposit. Of particular interest are the holdings of the principal British private presses of the end of this period, including extensive holdings of the Kelmscott, Vale and Eragny presses: see also Rare Books 1901-present. The vast majority of these items are now recorded in our online catalogue. Our holdings have been added to the several series of 'NSTC = Nineteenth Century Short-Title Catalogue', namely Series I, 1801-1830, and Series II, 1831-1870, available in the Library both in print format (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Avero Publications, 1984-1995) and on CD-ROM (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Avero Publications, 1996); and also Series III, 1871-1919, which is available on CD-ROM only (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Avero Publications, 1997). The microfiche series 'The Nineteenth Century' (shelfmark Mc.698, index at Mg.69), published by Chadwyck-Healey, a subject-based selection of over 25,000 publications from this period, is also available in the Library. There is also a web guide for 'The Nineteenth Century' collection.

Non-British books

The Library has since the early 18th century sought to build a collection including the key works of European scholarship, and consequently it has rich holdings - over 10,000 items - of 16th-century books printed on the Continent, particularly from France and the Low Countries. We have particularly collected the works of Scots published overseas, and Continental books which were imported to Scotland at an early date (see Book ownership page). Most books are recorded in the main catalogue, but, for some books catalogued before 1974, it is worth checking 'A Short Title Catalogue of Foreign Books Printed up to 1601' (Edinburgh: NLS, 1970). The Library's holdings are also recorded in the 'Index Aureliensis: Catalogus Librorum Sedecimo Saeculo Impressorum' (1962-), a union list of 16th-century printed books which to date has reached DES in the alphabet. The collections of early German works in the Crawford Collections are recorded in Michael A Pegg, 'Bibliotheca Lindesiana and other Collections of German Sixteenth-Century Pamphlets in Libraries of Britain and France' (Baden-Baden, 1977) and Michael A Pegg, 'A Catalogue of German Reformation Pamphlets (1516-1546) in Libraries of Great Britain and Ireland' (Baden-Baden, 1973).

The Library has an estimated 60,000 items printed overseas in the period 1601-1800, the largest number being from France. Again, the Library collects Continental books with some Scottish links, such as editions of 18th-century Scottish writers published abroad whether in the original or in translation. There are no special catalogues of these books, but they are mostly recorded in the main catalogue. Many of the named special collections are strong in holdings of early continental books, for example the Astorga Collection, a library of over 3,000 Spanish books from the 15th to 18th centuries formed by the Marqueses de Astorga, and the Dieterichs Collection of 17th- and 18th-century German and Dutch academic theses.


The Library's holdings of 19th-century non-British literature are extensive and wide-ranging. They include, in addition to the main works of European scholarship, numerous American and Canadian books, particularly, but by no means exclusively, books written by ex-patriate Scots. We have selectively purchased books published in Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, China and Japan, and other areas where Scots migrated to or were involved in Colonial administration. The Library is undertaking the detailed cataloguing of the 19th-century foreign serials in all branches of the sciences which were deposited by the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1981.

Rare books 1901-present

Many of the items which reached the Library through legal deposit in the 20th century are now uncommon or rare. Other rare books have been purchased, gifted or deposited, notably many books from some important British private presses, the Doves, Essex House, and Gregynog (see also British Books 1801-1900). Acquisitions include privately printed books relating to the activities of Scots at home or abroad, but the purchases have for many years also included good representative acquisitions from contemporary Scottish and other significant private presses.


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