7 of the most interesting special collections in the UK and Ireland

Tin Man and Scarecrow images on book cover

With thousands of special collections around in the British Isles covering 550 years and a vast range of topics, how does one choose one’s favourites? Ultimately there are no ‘best’ collections, and it comes down entirely to personal predilection. Here, based on the third edition of the Directory of Rare Book and Special Collections in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland, are my super seven:

The Miss Great Britain collection

The Miss Great Britain collection at Morecambe Library, part of Lancashire Library Service. While the Directory has many collections on unexpected subjects, this is the one that jumped out at me as the most unusual. It comprises over 1,000 images and ephemera from the Miss Great Britain competition from about 1950 to 1980. It is an excellent example of the value of collection-level descriptions: one suspects that the collection as a collection amounts to more than the sum of  the individual parts. 

The Wizard of Oz collection

The Wizard of Oz collection at Reading University. I have a fascination with single-author collections, which can easily be among the most unique and distinctive in the country (what library in the British Isles would set out to buy editions of a popular English or American author in Chinese or Russian?), and the single-book collection is an extension of that. There are two Alice in Wonderland collections in England, but this is the only Wizard of Oz collection – and one of few collections devoted to an American writer. The collection consists of about 800 volumes including many editions and translations of The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1856-1919), and associated items. It includes sequels by other authors, and other books by Baum, including those written pseudonymously. 

The Nineteenth-Century Novels collection

4 Emma Jane Worboise novels

Source: The Nineteenth-Century Novels collection at Newcastle University / original cropped and resized

The Nineteenth-Century Novels collection at Newcastle University. This contains some 1,500 nineteenth-century novels, almost entirely by lesser-known writers, such as Rosa Carey, Emma Jane Worboise and Alexander Grant. This is the only collection in the Directory to mention Emma Jane Worboise (1825-1887), a writer of decided views and strongly evangelical family fiction whose works I am in the process of collecting. Hence my fascination! Extremely popular in their time, the novels are scarce now. 

The St George’s Lutheran Church Library

The St George’s Lutheran Church Library (Whitechapel) at the British Library. The Directory contains numerous English parish libraries but very few libraries of foreign-language churches in England. Receiving the entry for the St George’s library was a major triumph, as I had despaired of tracing it from the starting-point of the 1997 Directory: ministers of the German churches in London had been unable to answer my questions about it. This is a library of 600 volumes originally in the parish library of St George's Lutheran Church in Alie Street, Whitechapel, London, purchased by the British Library in 1997 (and far more easily accessible there). The contents are mostly eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German works on theology, including some rare London German imprints. 

Collections pertaining to food, wine and cookery

Illustration of two cakes

Caption: Mrs Agnes Marshall’s The Book of Ices (1885). Source: AS 883 from the Andre Simon Collection (Wine and Food Society) / original cropped and resized

Collections pertaining to food, wine and cookery at the Guildhall, City of London. The Directory includes many special collections of local relevance (take, for example, a golf collection at St Andrews University) and the printed connection of food with the City of London feels like an extension of this, given that banquets in the City can make news headlines. London’s Guildhall has several collections on matters appealing to the palate with getting on for 7,000 books and pamphlets between them, mostly focusing on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The largest are the libraries of the International Wine and Food Society (3,000 items) and the Institute of Masters of Wine Library (2,100 items from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century, including auction catalogues). Others stem from the libraries of the cookery writer Elizabeth David and the food writer and potter Mary Wondrausch, from the Guild of Food Writers; and from the Hallgarten family of Hallgarten, Druitt & Novum Wines.

The Pressler Kahan Tauchnitz collection

The Pressler Kahan Tauchnitz collection at the National Library of Scotland. This is an almost complete set (about 8,000 volumes) of the collection of British (and American) Authors series published by the German firm of Bernhard Tauchnitz of Leipzig, 1841-1943, and later Tauchnitz editions published in Germany in the 1940s-50s. Collections based around publishers abound in the Directory, from the Aldines in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries onwards. The Pressler Kahan Tauchnitz collection is the largest of three Tauchnitz collections in the United Kingdom. It has not yet been catalogued, and what I really like is the demonstration of the value of the collection-level description: the researcher wanting Tauchnitz books can easily ascertain the value of visiting Edinburgh without the help of individual catalogue records.

Cardiff Rare Books collection: Incunabula

Salvator Mundi from Rolevinck’s “Fasciculus temporum” (1474), with manuscript annotations.

Caption: Salvator Mundi from Rolevinck’s “Fasciculus temporum” (1474), with manuscript annotations. SourceCardiff Rare Books collection: Incunabula / original cropped and resized

Cardiff Rare Books collection: Incunabula at Cardiff University Library. These 180 incunabula represent a cross-section of book publishing in Continental Europe from 1470 to 1500. They are among the books that came to Cardiff University from Cardiff Public Libraries last decade. Of course there are many larger collections of incunabula in the British Isles, with those at Glasgow and Cambridge Universities standing out for recent cataloguing projects and resulting treasures volumes. But an accession of 180 incunabula in one go is to be despised by nobody. These books would have more than doubled the fifteenth-century holdings at my own institution, so that the reason this collection jumped out at me was sheer envy!

These are a selection of my favourite special collections. Share yours in the comments below.

About the Directory of Rare Book and Special Collections

The Directory of Rare Book and Special Collections in the UK and Republic of Ireland, 3rd edition is edited by Karen Attar.

It is the only publication to bring together rare book and special collections from all kinds of libraries across the British Isles and is an essential research tool for researchers and librarians throughout the world.

Fully updated since the second edition was published in 1997, this comprehensive and up-to-date guide encompasses collections held in national libraries, academic libraries,  public libraries, subscription libraries, clergy libraries, libraries for other professions, school libraries, companies, London clubs, museums and archives, and libraries in stately homes. 


Banner image source: University of Reading Special Collections / original cropped and resized


Read our blog comment guidelines