History of the book and general printed collections

Manuscript collections

From the earliest years of its existence, with the acquisition of the Spencer Collection, the John Rylands Library has housed one of the most important collections in the world relating to the birth and development of Western printing and the history of the book. The merger with the University Library in 1972 added the Christie and Bullock collections, particularly rich in Italian and French printing, to the Rylands's holdings.

There are now over 4,000 Incunabula in the Library, most of which date from between 1455 and 1480, representing more than 500 European presses, some being the only known copies. Germany, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Spain and England all feature prominently; the texts printed by Caxton represent the second largest collection in the world.

A concise conspectus of early printing is afforded by the Hiero von Holtorp Collection, which contains specimen leaves from virtually all 15th- and 16th-century printers in Germany, Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands and England.

For the 16th century, the Library's greatest strengths lie in the field of Italian printing. The largest Aldine Collection in the world contains virtually every work produced by Aldus Manutius and his Venetian successors between 1495 and 1598, while the Bullock Collection holds an even wider range of Italian writers.

As a whole, the collection of early printed books constitutes one of the world's principal resources for the study of European publication of the classics of Greece and Rome, as well as of the writings of late medieval and early modern authors.

The Library holds some 12,500 books printed between 1475 and 1640, and a further 210,000 printed between 1641 and 1800. They cover a wide range of subjects: theology, history, literature, travel and exploration, science and medicine.

The first and finest editions of later authors in the European canon of great writers have been systematically sought. Deluxe editions, extra-illustrated and large-paper copies and fine bindings are plentiful, but there are also substantial collections of working-class literature, such as broadsides and chapbooks.

Notable collections include:

  • the Tabley Book Collection, a fine country-house library from Tabley House in Cheshire which incorporates many 17th and 18th-century works;
  • the library from Sedbergh School in Cumbria, a representative example of a public-school library, ranging in date from the 16th century to the 20th and full of bibliographical interest;
  • the Lloyd Roberts Collection, which contains numerous first editions of major English authors;
  • and the Shackleton Collection, which is especially rich in 18th-century French and English publications.

Fine printing in the 18th century is further represented by the Glaswegian Foulis Press Collection, and by the works of the greatest English and Italian printers of the period, John Baskerville and Giambattista Bodoni.

The Library also holds comprehensive collections of publications by several exclusive bibliographical societies founded in the 19th century, such as the Roxburghe Club and the Scottish Bannatyne and Maitland Clubs.

An outstanding Private Press Collection (including complete or near-complete collections of books from the Kelmscott, Doves, Ashendene and Essex House Presses), is complemented by the Casdagli Collection of first editions and books from the Gregynog and Golden Cockerel Presses.

There are countless fine bindings among the Library's collections, ranging from original bindings of the 15th century through to contemporary design bindings.

Bindings of the 16th to 18th centuries may be found among the Spencer, Christie, Bullock and Aldine collections, while the Lloyd Roberts Collection includes a large number of fine bindings from the 15th and 16th centuries, such as those produced for Grolier and Grimaldi, as well as the work of 19th-century trade binders such as Zaehnsdorf and Bedford.

The Library holds the largest extant collection of bindings by Roger Payne, the greatest English binder of the 18th century, as well as a collection of his bills (English MSS 440 and 944).

The reinvigoration of bookbinding in the late 19th century, as part of the Arts and Crafts revival, is shown in examples of the output of the Doves Bindery and the work of individual craft binders such as Douglas Cockerell and Katherine Adams within the Private Press Collection.

The two Tregaskis Collections constitute a unique synopsis of the state of fine bookbinding throughout the world in 1894 and 1994.

The Anthony Dowd Collection of modern British bookbindings, which was deposited on long-term loan in 2001, is one of the finest and most representative collections of its kind. Over a period of thirty-five years, through purchase and direct commission, Anthony Dowd acquired one hundred fine bindings by some fifty leading makers. Pioneers such as Sybil Pye and Edgar Mansfield rub shoulders with leading contemporary binders, including twenty-one fellows and honorary fellows of Designer Bookbinders.

Other collections relating to the history of the book include:

  • the Viner Collection of bookplates designed by Charles William Sherborn and John Paul Rylands;
  • the Cassedy Collection of Irish texts, including works on local history, topography, genealogy, the Protestant and Catholic faiths and the Gaelic language;
  • the John Strachan Collection of works on Celtic and Scandinavian language, literature, history, archaeology, art and folklore;
  • the Deaf Education Collection of books from the 16th to 19th centuries on the education of deaf people;
  • and the Neil Salvesen Collection which contains many scarce works in and about Esperanto.

It should also be noted that the John Rylands Library Archive contains much information on the acquisition of printed books by Mrs Rylands and her Library.