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Rare Books: Shelfmarks and named collections

A guide to finding and using rare books in the Bodleian Library

Collections of rare books

The rare books holdings of the Bodleian Library reflect its history as the library of the University of Oxford since 1602, with strengths in theology, law, the classical tradition, and mathematics — although almost all subjects and genres are represented somewhere. 

The index of named collections gives brief details of the collections containing early printed books in the Bodleian, and includes provenance details for all of our major collections. It is adapted and expanded from Karen Attar (ed.), A directory of rare book and special collections in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland, 3rd edition (London: Facet, 2016). The Bodleian's manuscripts team maintains a list of their own named collections here and a searchable index of owners of 15th century books in the Bodleian's collection can be found on Bod-Inc here

A note on shelfmarks

Many printed rare book collections bear shelfmarks (often abbreviated) derived from the following sources:

  • Names of former owners or libraries whose books have been acquired and are still kept together as separate collections, e.g. Douce, Broxbourne, Opie. 

  • Descriptions of categories of books grouped by subject matter, e.g. Art. [Artes], Bib. [Bible Collection], etc.

  • Groups having a common origin: e.g. Don. [Donations], Diss. [Dissertations], Inc. [Incunabula], etc.

Early books can also be found in the main historic classification schemes (e.g. Old Class, Nicholson, Year Books, etc.) with numeric shelfmarks usually indicating subject area. While these schemes are no longer added to, Nicholson in particular provides access to printed acquisitions made between 1883 and 1988 for items lacking subjects in the main SOLO record. For more information please see: Michael Heaney. The Bodleian Classification of Books. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, October 1978, 10: p.274-282. A copy of the scheme is available from Rare Books. 

Collections relating to English drama and literature

The printed literary collections of the Bodleian have been greatly enhanced over the centuries by bequests and donations including, but not limited to:

  • Robert Burton (1577-1640)  Some theology, but also works by most of the great names of Elizabethan literature (including Shakespeare), pamphlets, jest-books, newsbooks.
  • Edmund Malone (1741-1812)  Chiefly of Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline and Restoration literature, including the Library's finest Shakespeare collection.
  • Francis Douce (1757-1834)  Books on almost every subject printed in every period, including romances and novels, all forms of popular printing, drama, French literature and childrens books.
  • Dr B. E. Juel-Jensen (1922- 2006)  Collections of the works of Michael Drayton 1563-1631), Philip Sidney, Johannes V. Jensen and Bruce Chatwin.
  • Walter Harding (1883-1973)  English and French poetry, poetical miscellanies, and English drama.
  • Frank Pettingell (1891-1966)  Penny-dreadfuls and popular literature.
  • F. W. Dunston (1850-1915)  English poets, dramatists and novelists of the late 17th to the early 20th centuries, including Browning, Butler, Byron, Pope, Scott, Tennyson, and children’s books.
  • Sir Hugh Seymour Walpole (1884-1941)  Mainly first editions of English writers of fiction, poetry and belles lettres published in the 1890s.
  • Robert Ross Memorial Oscar Wilde Collection  The works of Oscar Wilde (1856-1900) deposited by University College, Oxford.
  • John A. Hogan (d. 1993)  Items by or about Edgar Wallace (1875-1932)
  • Mrs E. G. V. Gilliat  Items by or about the Sitwells.

Click here for further information regarding literary manuscripts.

Collections relating to science, technology and medicine

The Library is particularly strong in the fields of early mathematics, astronomy, physics and medicine. During the 19th Century, the Library made every effort to expand it's holdings in all areas of science and technology through legal deposit. Collections particularly strong in these areas include:

  • Elias Ashmole (1619-1692)  Strong in astrology, astronomy and kindred topics.
  • Brian Lawn (-2001)  Reflects his interest in Humanism, with books on many subject including natural sciences.
  • Martin Lister (1638?-1712)  Physician and zoologist, comprising ca. 1260 items dating from the 16th-18th centuries on medicine, anatomy, natural philosophy, botany, and voyages and travels.
  • Mathematics  A collection of 60 folios and large quartos on mathematical and technical subjects received among the new books between 1861 and 1883. 
  • Med. [Medicina]  One part of the original four-part classification by faculty, or subject, in use in various forms over the period 1602-1840.
  • Physics  A collection of 170 folios and large quartos on physics and other scientific subjects received among the new books between 1861 and 1883.
  • Stephen Peter Rigaud (1774-1839)  Savilian Professor of Geometry, Astronomy and Radcliffe Observer (1827-39). Comprises 840 items from his own library not already in the Bodleian.
  • The Savilian Library  A collection of works on mathematics, astronomy, geometry and applied sciences collected by the early Savilian Professors (including Henry Savile, Christopher Wren and John Wallis).
  • John Selden (1584-1654)  Many books on medicine and science, including books from the library of John Dee.

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