Our rare book collections of over 80,000 volumes include early printed books, private press books, modern literary first editions and ephemera.

Subject strengths include the history of books, printing and publishing; natural history, science and medicine; children’s books; travel, exploration and maps; and history.

We hold incunables from the 1470s to twentieth century Ladybird books.


From its origins in the late 1800s, the University set about acquiring unique and distinctive collections to support its research.

The bequest of the Overstone Library in the 1920s, a fine 19th century private library, began our systematic collecting of rare books. Many of our finest early, rare and valuable books and journals are in the Reserve Collection.


Crescentius, Ruralia commoda, 1471

Trace the history of print from incunables to present day ephemera with our Printing Collection. We hold private press collections (Golden Head Press, Gaberbocchus Press, Two Rivers Press), literary classics (Finzi), sheet music (Baron, Spellman) and popular series (John Hetherington’s ‘Readers’ Library’).

Our collections are a rich source for the study of book jacket design, such as Mills & Boon, Brock and Ladybird.


Estienne’s La dissection des parties du corps humain (1546)
Estienne, La dissection, 1546

A book collector and bibliophile from his schooldays until his death, Francis Joseph Cole (1872-1959) amassed a huge library of around 8,000 volumes of books and scientific papers, from earliest times to the present day. As Professor of Zoology at the University of Reading, Cole founded the Cole Museum of Zoology and used his magnificent library of works on the history of early medicine, zoology, comparative anatomy and reproductive physiology for teaching and research.

We hold hundreds of volumes of works on bees, bee-keeping and apiculture in the Bee Collection, complemented by the Cowan Bee Collection of  The Museum of English Rural Life.

Many early editions of classics in the field of geology are held in the Hawkins Collection.


The coral island: a tale of the Pacific Ocean / Ballantyne, R.M. (Robert Michael), 1825-1894. London: Blackie, 1902.
Ballantyne, The coral island, 1902.

The Children’s Collection contains around 8,000 volumes of work created for children, particularly from the 1800s to early 1900s.

Special Collections holds nearly 1,300 editions of Ladybird books (including Peter and Jane stories, ‘What to look for’ and ‘How it works’). We also hold many editions of  Robinson Crusoe and The Wizard of Oz.


De Wit, Atlas, c. 1700.

Our rare book collections include published accounts of voyages and expeditions from the 1500s onwards.

The handsome bindings of Overstone’s nineteenth century library contain many fine examples of published accounts of travel, such as Mayer’s Views in Egypt (1801). An impressive edition of  Frederick de Wit’s Atlas (1670-1707)  is held in our Reserve Collection.

Travel guide books (such as Shell guides) are contained within our Printing Collection, while wood-engraver Robert Gibbings is well-known for his travel writings. Our children’s books contains examples of travel writing and books about geography and travel for children.


Lane’s telescopic view of the interior of the Great Exhibition, 1851 [diorama].
We have rare books relating to all periods of ancient and modern history, including the working library of medieval historians Sir Frank and Lady Doris Stenton. We also hold around 200 printed items, relating to the Great Exhibition of 1851 in the Crystal Palace, the world’s first international exposition.

More information

See our Collections A-Z pages for descriptions of each of our rare books collections (list of all rare book collections here).

Many, but not all of our rare books are catalogued and searchable via the online catalogue. Please contact us if you need more information.

You can access our rare books via the reading room.

We welcome use of our rare book collections in teaching sessions.