Senate House Library

Manuscript and print studies

Explore over 1000 years of the creation, use and dissemination of manuscripts, documents, books and print media.

Subject Librarian: Tansy Barton
Phone: 020 7862 8475

Schedule an online meeting to discuss your research or collection related enquiries.


Manuscript and print studies

Explore over 1000 years of the creation, use and dissemination of manuscripts, documents, books and print media.

Subject Librarian: Tansy Barton
Phone: 020 7862 8475

Schedule an online meeting to discuss your research or collection related enquiries.

Senate House Library’s collections on Manuscript and Print studies include specialist research collections on palaeography, manuscripts, documents, printing, publishing, book art, reading, periodicals, news media and all things bibliographic. In addition, the Library holds significant collections of manuscripts and documents, early printed books from the 15th to 18th century and extensive 19th and 20th century print culture material in many formats.

The Manuscript Studies and Palaeography collection covers the history of western manuscript traditions from late antiquity to the early modern period. The collection is of national importance in its coverage the subject as well as distinct for housing material on the subject in one discreet collection with much of the printed material easily accessible on open shelves. It continues to be housed in the space built for the collection on the Library’s 4th floor, familiar to many users as the Palaeography Room. All aspects of manuscript production and use are covered from the study to scripts to decoration and illumination, medieval libraries and textual transmission. The collection provides a range of resources for working with manuscripts and documents including catalogues, guides to scripts, vocabularies, reference sources and bibliographies and facsimiles.  The collection was developed and continues to be a central resource for students and researchers of manuscripts at all colleges and institutions of the University of London and beyond.

The Print Studies collection focuses on the history of the printed book from the 15th century and the beginning of printing with moveable type in the west, to the present day. The collection also covers a range of print and increasingly electronic media in many formats such as newspapers, journals and ephemera. Subjects covered include printing, publishing, reading, collecting and libraries, illustration, binding and decoration, paper and typography. Holdings include publications from the 17th to the 21st centuries and the collection is increasingly international in its scope: publications on printing traditions around the world are added with a growing number as e-books. The collection supports the unique History of the Book MA run the Institute of English Studies as well as students across the University of London of literature, art, design, history and media and communication studies. It reflects a growing emphasis on the material and social context of the production and dissemination of information and texts.

The Special Collections and Archives contain a wealth of primary sources for study, teaching and research. The Archive collections include medieval manuscript and fragments, frequently used in the teaching of palaeography and codicology, the Fuller collection of documents and seals from the 12th-19th century, early modern manuscripts, literary manuscripts in the Sterling Library and papers and correspondence of publishers. Among the Special Collections and rare books are examples of printing and publishing from the 15th to 21st century with strengths in early English and European books, 19th century first editions and print culture, private and small press books and ephemeral material in the form of pamphlets, broadsides and cheap press editions.

Collection Locations

Collection Locations

The Manuscript Studies and Print Studies collections are located on the 4th floor of the Library in the Special Collections Reading Room. Print periodicals and some books are stored in the Library’s closed stack and can be requested via the catalogue. Special Collections books and archives can be requested for use in the Special Collections Reading Room.

Many titles in the subject as also available as e-books via our main e-book platform E-Book Central.

Guide to browsing the collections by classmark

Browse the subjects covered in the Manuscript Studies and Print Studies collections by their classmarks. These can be used to search the catalogue or to browse the collections on the Library shelves.

Guide to Manuscript and Print Studies Classifications (Adobe, PDF)

Searching the Catalogue

The catalogue can be searched in two ways. The Encore search will give results both from the Library’s collections of printed books and journal titles and e-books and e-journal titles and will search across e-resources, indexes and abstracts. The Classic Catalogue searches just printed books and journal titles and e-books and e-journal titles but also offers complex keyword searches and by classmark or subject heading.

Archives and Manuscripts are listed in a separate catalogue.

Help using the catalogue can be found here.

Specialist Subject guides

Medieval Collections at Senate House Library

The Library’s collections include a small number of medieval manuscripts, fragments and documents. These come from several different sources including purchases, donations, from early bindings and from major collections gifted to the library.

As well as providing a research resource, many manuscripts and fragments were purchased or donated for the purpose of teaching a range of principles in manuscript studies, particularly palaeography and codicology. They are used in session at the Library for courses across the University of London including the London International Palaeography Summer School.

The manuscript collections include MS1, the Life of the Black, a 13th century manuscript purchased by the University and presented to the then Prince of Wales in 1921 who placed it on permanent loan with the University, two versions of the ‘C text’ of William Langland’s Piers Plowman from the Sterling Library: the Ilchester Manuscript (SLV/88) and the Clopton Manuscript (SLV/17),  the Fuller Collection of documents and seals with examples from the 12th century onward and MS657, a 15th century paper manuscript compilation of sermons in a contemporary binding often used to teach codicology. The oldest fragment in the collection comes from the archive of German mediaevalist and Palaeographer Robert Priebsch and his son-in-law August Closs. It is a 9th century leaf of the Pseudo-Clemantine Recognitions in Caroline miniscule script. While one of the most significant fragments is a 14thcentury bifolium from the Auchinleck Manuscript (MS593).

A guide to the Library’s medieval holdings can be found here. They are also listed in the Archive Catalogue as well as union catalogues such as Aim25 for archive collections in the London area. Detailed descriptions can also be found in several published and unpublished catalogues available in the Library’s Palaeography Room. These include Descriptive list of fragments of medieval manuscripts in the University of London Library (1976) compiled by Rowan Watson, Catalogue of the manuscripts and autograph letters: in the University library at the central building of the University of London (1921) compiled by Reginald A. Rye and the entry for the University Library in Neil Ker’s Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries: volume 1: London (1969). A description of the medieval manuscripts and fragments in the Priebsch-Closs Collection: Flood, J.L., ‘Die mittelalterlichen Handschriften der Bibliothek des Institute of Germanic Studies, London’ in Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur 120. Bd., H. 3 (1991), pp. 325-330, can be found online via Manuscripta Mediaevalia.

Manuscript Facsimiles

Facsimiles of medieval manuscripts have been an essential element of the Manuscript Studies collection since it was first developed at the Library in the 1920s. They provide a means for teachers, researchers and students to compare multiple manuscripts of different types and locations in one place. The facsimiles continue to be housed on the open access shelves of the Palaeograpy room alongside catalogues and critical works ensuring both reproductions of manuscripts and tools for using them are at hand.

Early facsimiles and reproductions of manuscripts in the collection date from the early 19th century onwards. New photographic techniques in printing meant manuscripts could be reproduced much more accurately than with lithography or tracing techniques. Among early works in the collection are photozincographic facsimiles by Henry James of the Domesday Book from the 1860s and national manuscripts of Scotland, Ireland and England Wales from the 1870s.

Modern facsimiles, particularly high quality fine-art facsimiles, aim to reproduce all elements of the original manuscript, even faults, damage and ownership marks, using high quality digital imaging in combination with expert skills in matching colours and features. Elements such as gold leaf and replicas of original bindings are often added by hand. This gives students and scholars the opportunity to get as close as possible to rare originals that may not always be easy to access. The facsimiles are often accompanied by in depth commentaries providing valuable scholarship on the manuscripts. The collections fine art facsimiles include the Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospelsand the Lambeth Apocalypse.

Over the past few decades’ rapid developments in digitisation technology have made a greater number of manuscripts accessible to a much larger audience, particularly through open access institutional and national digital collections. Digital facsimiles offer a different, but complementary experience to a print facsimile, with more flexible accessibility and tools to examine and compare aspects of a manuscript but with less of the material experience a print facsimile offers.

Facsimiles can be browsed on the Library catalogue via a subject search for ‘Palaeography facsimiles’. They can also be browsed on the shelf under the classmarks CC25.76-79 and the majority can be found on the folio shelves in the Palaeography Room. Digital facsimiles of some of the Library’s manuscripts can be found on the Bloomsbury Medieval Studies resource. Many national libraries provide open access databases of digitised manuscripts, such as the British Library and Gallica from the Bibliotheque National de France and projects such as Manuscriptorium bring together manuscripts and documents from several different libraries and museums. A good place to start exploring digitised manuscripts is the Digitized Medieval Manuscripts app (DMAPP) by Sexy Codicology which plots collections of digitised manuscripts across the world.

Archive collections

As well as medieval material, Senate House Library’s Archives and Manuscripts include a rich variety of material for research into manuscripts, publishing, printing and book history.

The collections include several early modern manuscripts, particularly from the Durning-Lawrence Library and the Goldsmiths Library. Many literary manuscripts can be found in the Sterling Library by writers including Byron, Tennyson, J.M. Barrie and Olive Moore.

Archive collections include the papers of palaeographers Julian Brown and Francis Wormald, the papers of bibliographer Seymour De Ricci including correspondence and card indexes of manuscripts, also available online, archives of publishers and booksellers such as Duckworth and co., Charles Lahr and the Dolphin Bookshop, a collection of material on Mudie’s Library and records of libraries at the University of London and of the Athlone Press in the University Archives.

All archive collections are listed on the Archive and Manuscripts catalogue and subject guides with reference numbers for collections can be found below:

Early Printed Books

Early printed books at Senate House Library extend from 1470 until 1830 – i.e. throughout the period when every part of book production (making paper, setting type, printing, binding) was done by hand. We estimate that we hold some 200,000 of them. They cover numerous subjects. Economic history, general history, classics, Protestant theology, English literature (especially Shakespeare and his era), German literature, shorthand, magic and mathematics are general strengths. Music, philosophy, art, law, travel literature, other western European vernacular literatures, the history of education, and natural history are all represented.

Some books are hefty tomes. Others are mere pamphlets, chance survivals of bygone ages. The collections are peppered by such major cultural icons as Shakespeare’s First Folio (two copies) and the first editions of Euclid’s Elements, Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus, Newton’s Principia and the novels of Jane Austen among others. Three early-seventeenth-century Shakespeare quartos are particular treasures. Sumptuous hand-coloured natural historical volumes complement these jewels. Other books are obscure, from the first cookery book printed in Catalan and rare French and German Rosicrucian works to a Danish translation of Claude Carloman Rulhière’s incendiary Anecdotes sur la révolution de Russie en l’année 1762 (1797). There are runs of popular textbooks in various subjects, from mathematics to legerdemain. Multiple editions of major works are a treasure trove for reception theory--Francis Bacon, William Shakespeare, Adam Smith, Homer, Latin classics, and Euclid stand out. Some books are unique.

Beyond textual transmission, the books are important primary sources for the history of printing. Books printed by England’s first printer, William Caxton, and by his successors, Richard Pynson and Wynkyn de Worde, are present, in volumes which show clearly the transmission from manuscript to print. The major names of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and beyond are all here. The Dutch seventeenth-century Elzevir dynasty stands out for a special collection of Elzevir books. But there are also books printed by Anton Koberger in Germany, Aldus Manutius and his descendants in Italy, by the Etiennes in France, by Christopher Plantin and Jan Moretus among others in the Low Countries, Ibarra in Spain, and later by the Baskervilles in Birmingham. Numerous examples of indifferent printing highlight and contextualise the greats. We see developments in printing, as printers learned, for example, to print music on staves, and testify to various illustrative techniques, from early woodcuts to Bewick’s exquisite wood engravings and to lithography.

The books provide several examples of how copies of what was basically the same edition differed from each other when they left the printing house, as errors were corrected during the printing process or by hand at the printer’s. Once books left the printer, each copy embarked upon its own history of ownership and binding. Volumes in Senate House Library provide copious examples of early owners, famous or anonymous, annotating their texts, valuable testimony to the history of ownership, reading, and material culture. Bindings, further evidence of material culture, date from the fifteenth century onwards. Thanks particularly to three eighteenth-century clerical collections, numerous English seventeenth- and eighteenth-century books are bound in their original bindings.      

Victorian Print Culture

The Library’s collections were founded in the 19th century and a range of contemporary printing and publishing practices are well represented throughout the collections, from fine printing, first editions and private presses in the Sterling Library to novels and periodicals in the closed access stack collections.

The early 19th century saw the change from hand-set and printed books and handmade paper to machine and steam driven production. This led to increased production of all print media: books, periodicals, newspapers and cheap ephemera such as broadsides. The prices of books fell making them accessible to a wider, increasingly literate, audience. Developments in binding and printing images also changed the look of the book with illustrated editions and decorative cloth bindings becoming more common.

Many of the Special Collections are rich in 19th century material. The Sterling Library includes first editions of major novels, original part works by Dickens and others, illustrated books by the Cruickshanks, Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway and John Leech, and early private press editions including a complete collection of the Kelmscott Press.  The Bromhead Library of books chiefly about London covering culture and entertainment, history, travel guides, economy and social conditions and topography. Many of the books are illustrated and are in their original bindings. Goldsmiths Collection on economic history includes 19th material on a wide range of topics including publishing, printing and patents as well as a large collection of broadsides, prints and pamphlets. Other collections including 19th century material include the De Morgan Library and the Lady Welby Library, both with books copiously annotated by their former owners, the Martin Collection of children’s books and the Prize Collection of books awarded as school prizes many with illustrated cloth bindings.

The Library’s stack collections hold an exceptional collection of 19th century periodicals. Titles include Household Words and All the Year Round, Fraser’s Magazine, Blackwell’s Magazine, Punch, the Westminster Review and the Illustrated London News. The English collection includes many 19th century novels in multiple formats.

The print studies collection includes books on major nineteenth century publishers and authors’ relationships with publishers, on the changes in printing technologies, on illustration, particularly woodcuts and the development of new technologies such as lithography and on the nineteenth century reader and collector, including more unusual uses of books.

Volume VI of the The Cambridge history of the book in Britain (2014) covering 1830-1914 provides a useful introduction to all aspects of the 19th century book in Britain. It is available as an ebook via Cambridge Histories online or as a print book.

Complementary subject strengths

Manuscript and Print Studies are interdisciplinary subjects. As well as the dedicated collections the following subject strengths will include useful material:

Introductory guides to the Library’s named Special Collections and Archive collections can be found here.

Teaching Manuscript Studies and Book History at SHL

The Library can supply a range of original materials for teaching book history, from introductions to manuscripts to specialist sessions on subjects such as incunabula or Victorian periodicals.

Contact the Subject Librarian or the Rare Books Librarian for more information on running a session in the Library.

LibGuides eresources

The Library subscribes to a range of full-text and bibliographical resources to support your research in Manuscript and Print Studies. These included Bloomsbury Medieval Studies, Book History Online, Early European Books and Jisc Historical texts. Check the A to Z list on our LibGuides platform.

An illuminated initial from manuscript MS541, a 14th century French missal fragment
Clairaut Lune 1765
Théorie de la Lune (1765) by M. Clairaut from the library of Augustus De Morgan with his notes
Cottage 1
An early 19th century wood engraved printing block from the Fuller Collection
A 1927 fine binding by Sybil Pye of Emily Brontë’s Poems (1923) from the Sterling Library

Suggest a book

We are always happy to review suggestions for new items to add to the collections.