Special collections: Rare books in Western languages

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. The library also holds important collections of antiquarian and modern children's books, popular literature, and ephemera.

This page provides an overview of the Bodleian Library's rare book collections. For more information, visit our detailed Rare Books research guide. For a more detailed list of early printed collections and their provenances, see the Named collections index. You can also search and browse our digitised rare books on Digital Bodleian.


The Bodleian Library houses the largest collection of pre-1500 printed books in any university library, and the fifth largest collection of incunabula in any library in the world: 5623 editions in 6755 copies.

Information about the history of the Bodleian’s incunable collections, their housing, and cataloguing may be found in Alan Coates, The Bodleian Library and its Incunabula.

A searchable version of the main sequence of entries is available at Bodleian Incunables.

For more information, visit our dedicated subject guide.

English drama and literature

The printed literary collections of the Bodleian have been greatly enhanced over the centuries by bequests and donations. They include:

  • Robert Burton (1577–1640): Some theology, as well as 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 BE 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.
  • FW 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 EGV Gilliat: Items by or about the Sitwells.

For more information about literary manuscripts, visit our subject guide.

Children's literature

The Bodleian Library holds the Opie Collection, which was acquired in 1988, and contains approximately 20,000 books printed between the 16th and 20th centuries for children. Most of the collection has been reproduced on microfiche. These are available in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Reading Room. Readers are asked to use the fiche in the first instance.

The majority of books for children were, and continue to be, acquired through legal deposit. A number of named early collections also hold significant early childrens books, including Douce, and items can be located in the printed books catalogue, available via SOLO (Search Oxford Libraries Online).

Visit our subject guide for more information about finding children's literature at the Bodleian Library.


The Bodleian Library holds over 30,000 ballads, contained in several collections. These have been gathered into a single catalogue which is now presented, along with a scanned image of each ballad sheet, in the Broadside Ballads Project. Comparisons can be made of multiple copies of the same ballad. In addition, a few of the ballads have scores; for these sound files are provided.

Each ballad in the collections is indexed by title, first line, and subject. An index of names holds entries for all authors and performers named on the ballad broadsides. The woodcut illustrations are indexed by subject, using the image classification system ICONCLASS.

Science, technology and medicine

The Bodleian 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 its 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 (1905–2001): 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.

For more information about our history of science, technology and medicine collections, visit our research guide.

Book auction catalogues

For finding aids and help on finding book auction catalogues on SOLO, please see our dedicated subject guide.

More useful information

For more details on the scope of the library's collections, see the the entry in A directory of rare book and special collections in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, edited by Karen Attar (Library Association, 2016).

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