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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 the Special Collections Librarian, Kathryn McKee on 01223 339393.



Some of the most interesting items and finds in our Special Collections are featured in our Spotlight Blog, which is regularly updated by Library staff. You can find a full index of Spotlight entries here.

Early Printed Books


Details of the Library's rare books to 1800, and of the progress of the Cataloguing Project, may be found here.

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.

Information on the ownership marks and interesting bindings from the College's collections may be found here

Photographic Collections


The Library's photographic collections are housed in the Old Library and can be consulted in the Rare Books Reading Room.

Further information about the collections may be found here.



The Old Library contains a number of interesting artefacts, ranging from busts, to medals awarded to eminent alumni, to 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. 

More about these and other items may be found here

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'.

Information on the Fred Hoyle Collection and the 2008-2011 Hoyle Project can be found here

Samuel Butler Collection

St John’s College Library holds an extensive collection of material produced by and relating to the Victorian polymath Samuel Butler (1835-1902), which includes:

  • 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 ran from July 2011 to June 2013, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and St John’s College. Its aim was to catalogue the collection fully, and to make it accessible to researchers, schools and the public through exhibitions and events. More information about the collection and the project is available here.

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.