Early printed books

From the late sixteenth century onwards St John's has maintained one of the larger College libraries in Cambridge, and many of its original holdings are still to be found in the Old Library. This now houses some 50,000 early printed books, and amongst these are some of the key milestones in printing history, many of the major texts of the early modern period, and numerous volumes with exceptional bindings and decoration. Some of the volumes held in the Old Library date back to within twenty years of the development of printing in Europe, and there are almost 340 incunabula in all. From these early editions the collections continue through the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, covering a broad range of topics, which reflect both the subjects studied in the University throughout the period (e.g. theology, classics, law, mathematics, medicine), and the interests of individual members of the College (e.g. history, travel, current affairs, antiquarian curiosity). To give an idea of the scope of the collections, an increasing number of digital images of particular highlights are being made available on-line. The Library also has a small collection of early Chinese printed works


Our rare books may be consulted under supervision in the Rare Books Reading Room, Monday-Friday, 10 am-12.30pm and 2pm-4.30pm. To arrange an appointment please contact the Special Collections Librarian (tel. 01223 339393).


Since 2001 the Library has been actively committed to providing on-line catalogue access for its early printed material via the University's Catalogue. The Upper Library Cataloguing Project was completed in 2006, and a further project to catalogue the remaining items on the lower floor of the Old Library was completed in 2012. All cataloguing takes into account DCRM(B) standards, and special attention is placed on describing the provenance of items, allowing searches on the names of previous owners. Note is also made of any particularly interesting bindings, illuminations or other copy-specific features of interest. Since August 2010, records for books in both the Upper Library and the special collections in the Lower Library have also been made available via the Library Hub Discover catalogue (formerly COPAC).


Most of the material in the Upper Library is arranged together in loose subject areas. Although some of the Lower Library is also organised by subject, there are a greater number of named collections.


Arts & Music | Classics | Geography & Travel | History & Politics | Law | Language & Literature | Miscellanea | Science & Mathematics | Theology


Rollo Brice-Smith | Domenico Antonio Ferrari | Hugh Wharton Gatty | Thomas Gisborne | Sir Soulden Lawrence | J.E.B. Mayor | Samuel Parr | Matthew Prior | William Francis Smith | James Wood | William Wordsworth collection | George Udny Yule

Provenance & Binding

Where discernible, details of the ownership history of books has been included systematically throughout the cataloguing of the Old Library, and this information is now available on-line. Building on this work a Provenance Index has been compiled, drawing together information on notable owners, donors and bequests, together with numerous images of distinctive provenance markers (e.g. bookplates and binding stamps) from the collections. This also incorporates images of particularly interesting bindings noted on the catalogue.