Bookbindings

Shelfmark: Davis829

We have one of the world’s leading collections of fine and historic bookbindings, both dispersed individually throughout the Library and in discrete specialist collections.

About the collection

The wide-ranging collection includes examples from throughout the world. British and European bindings are particularly well represented but there are also examples from the Near and Far East and from the Americas.

Many interesting bindings can be found in the Old Royal Library (books formerly owned by the English monarchs from Edward IV to George II), the King's Library of George III, and in the libraries of individual collectors such as Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode and Thomas Grenville.

What is available online?

Since 1997 the Library has been compiling a freely available Database of Bookbindings particularly rich in Western European printed books. The database, which includes detailed images, is a work in progress with records being added on a regular basis. Only bindings that are in good condition and suitable for digitisation are included in the database, so some significant bindings are not represented.

Images of many of the bindings within the Library’s manuscript collections can also be seen on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Many reference works about bindings are available on open access in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room. 

The vast majority of the Library’s bindings are dispersed throughout the printed books collections and these can be ordered to the Reading Rooms using Explore the British Library. Binding notes in the catalogue are not comprehensive but notable bindings can be found by name of binder and/or descriptive term (e.g. embroidered).

Some individual collections of bindings can also be found on Explore the British Library. These include the Charles Ramsden Collection of ca. 1,500 signed bindings from the 18th and 19th centuries, and the Franks Collection of 260 armorial bindings from the 16th to the 18th century.

Other collections have restricted access and can only be consulted with special permission by the Curator of Bookbindings. These include the Olga Hirsch Collection of decorated papers, the Henry Davis Gift (a collection of 890 bindings dating from the 12th to the 20th century) and the John Jaffray Collection of binding trade material.

What is available in other organisations?

Noteworthy bindings can be found in special collections throughout the world. A number of holding libraries have created websites through which their bindings can be viewed in great detail. These include:

A comprehensive list of libraries that hold significant collections of armorial bindings can be found on the British Armorial Bindings database (hosted by the University of Toronto).

Further information

Beautiful Bookbindings by P.J.M. Marks (British Library, 2011) features a selection of bindings from the British Library collection, ranging from the medieval to the contemporary.