Special Collections



The Library's Special Collections are housed in the Old Library and can be consulted in the Rare Books Reading Room. For further information on the collections and arrangements for viewing them please contact Special Collections via email or on 01223 339393.

Provenances and Bindings


The early printed books and manuscripts held in the Library were often owned by various individuals before they ended up in its collections. Sometimes well-known or celebrated individuals left their mark on a volume, whether a signature, motto, bookplate or specially made binding. More often they were more obscure, leaving just a name or a doodle.



The Old Library contains a number of interesting artefacts, ranging from busts to eminent Johnians' medals, from the 18th-century Materia Medica cabinet of Dr William Heberden to William Wordsworth's breakfast cup and saucer. Also to be found within the collection are more curious objects, including the lead filling from the skull of a lead-filled skeleton discovered at Newport Pagnell in 1619.

Fred Hoyle Collection


Professor Sir Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) was one of the most distinguished, creative and controversial scientists of the twentieth century. He was a Fellow of St John’s College (1939-1972, Honorary Fellow 1973-2001), was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1957, held the Plumian Chair of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy (1958-1972), established the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy in Cambridge (now part of the Institute of Astronomy), and (in 1972) received a knighthood for his services to astronomy. Hoyle was a keen mountain climber, an avid player of chess, a science fiction writer, a populariser of science, and the man who coined the phrase 'Big Bang'. The 2008-11 Hoyle Project catalogued and promoted the Fred Hoyle Collection.

Samuel Butler Collection

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) was a Victorian polymath. His published works span literature, science and theology, and he was also a pioneering photographer and accomplished amateur artist. The Library holds an extensive collection of material produced by and relating to Butler, consisting of:

  • around 100 boxes of papers, articles and correspondence
  • more than 600 printed books
  • around 450 paintings, watercolours, drawings and prints
  • 50 artefacts
  • a substantial photographic archive, comprising more than 1500 glass plate negatives, five albums of snapshots and 550 loose photographs, plus 125 prints produced more recently for exhibitions.

The Samuel Butler Project (2011-13) was dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the collection, and a wealth of information is available on the project website.

Acquisitions & Donations

Since the foundation of St John's College in 1511, its Library has owed much to generations of generous benefactors. Bishop John Fisher, one of the principal founders of the College, gave several books of theology and canon law to fill the infant Library's empty shelves, and a succession of benefactors, great and small, followed suit with gifts of books or money. The magnificent Old Library building would not have existed without the generosity of members of the College, Bishop John Williams chief among them. In the 1630s the College embarked upon an appeal to fill its shelves, sending out a Latin letter to members past and present.

We have a chest. It is in your power that we may call it a library. Oh how great is this, our empty space! Such a venerable home, yet so few inhabitants. How wonderful it would be to expel the cobwebs. How worthy it would be for you to fit a suitable nut to this shell. 

The appeal worked and the Library's shelves quickly filled. Today the flowery Latin may have gone but the generosity of members of the College and others means that we continue to receive 'suitable nuts' to add to our existing treasures.

Biographical Records

The College Biographical Archive, one of the best collections of its kind, is housed with other special collections in the Lower Library, and covers every Member of the College - over 43,000 - since comprehensive admissions records began in 1629. It combines information on birth, parents, schooling and academic career, drawn from College and University sources, with notes on later lives and careers and an ad hoc collection of press cuttings, letters and miscellaneous documents. It is the cumulative work of College Fellows and others, beginning in the eighteenth century.

Together with a related collection of books and pamphlets, which are a rich source of biographical information, the archive provides a valuable resource on past members of St John's, and is used to answer a wide variety of research enquiries. (Please note that to protect privacy the College does not answer biographical enquiries relating to living individuals. Members of the College who wish to connect with other Old Johnians should contact the Development Office.)

Find out more about the Biographical Archive