Edinburgh University Library’s rare book collections are internationally important and include many books found nowhere else. Special Collections include manuscripts and archives, rare books, photographs, printed and handwritten music, theses and microforms. In total the collection includes about 35 kilometres of historic material.
The collections relate to University of Edinburgh and its history, and to Scotland and the wider world. The collection’s earliest printed book is a volume of the Chinese Yi Ching, printed in 1440. The earliest Western printed book, produced using moveable metal type, is St. Augustine, De civitate Dei, printed in about 1468. The collection has approximately 300 incunabula (books printed before 1501), many with important provenances and annotations. Early Scottish books are well represented, including the world’s finest surviving copy of the Aberdeen Breviary, the first substantial book produced in Scotland in 1509-1510. The collection is particularly strong in holdings of works relating to the European Reformation, such as the unique copy of Michael Servetus Christianismi restitutio (1553) formerly owned and annotated by John Calvin, who had Servetus burned. The collection also contains the only copy in Scotland of the first book printed in Gaelic, John Knox’s liturgy of 1567.
Edinburgh University Library came into being in 1580 when Clement Litill bequeathed his collection to the new college. Major donations followed including the library of the poet William Drummond in 1626. Early individual donations include a unique copy of one of the first books printed in America, John Eliot’s Indian Primer (1669). The Copyright Act of 1710 gave the library the right to claim a copy of every book published in Britain and Ireland, a right which was maintained until 1837, and which enabled the library to build up the bulk of the early modern British collections. There are over 15,000 pre-1801 British or English language books listed on the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) as being in Edinburgh University Library.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, the University of Edinburgh acquired some major collections such as the library of J.O. Halliwell-Phillipps with its Shakespeare quartos. More modern rare books include poetry pamphlets (the Ramage collection) and translations of the novels of Alexander McCall Smith. Items from Special Collections are available for consultation in the Centre for Research Collections reading room.