Introduction to our collections

Introduction to our collections

The Special Collections Department houses an outstanding library of old, rare and unique material, including many illuminated medieval and renaissance manuscripts of international importance, and more than 10,000 books that were printed before 1601. Other media such as music scores, drawings, early photographs, maps and ephemera are well represented, displaying the wide range and subject coverage of the collections. 

Acquired by the University of Glasgow since its foundation in 1451, these collections span two millennia and reflect over five hundred years of scholarship, providing a remarkable resource for the University, many visiting researchers, and the local community.

The best known and most treasured of the collections is the Hunterian Library, one of the finest 18th century libraries to survive intact. Dr William Hunter (1718-83), Physician Extraordinary to Queen Charlotte, studied at Glasgow before moving to London in 1740, where he remained until his death.  Comprising some 10,000 printed books and over 600 manuscripts, its treasures include:

  • the Hunterian Psalter, one of the most splendid examples of 12th century English Romanesque art
  • a 15th century Life of Christ, by Ludolf of Saxony, sumptuously illustrated with 140 miniatures and previously owned by Charles VIII, King of France
  • a series of beautiful red chalk drawings prepared by Jan van Rymsdyk for Hunter's own celebrated obstetrical atlas, The anatomy of the gravid uterus
  • Chaucer’s Romaunt of the Rose: the only surviving medieval manuscript text of this work

Hunter was also an avid collector of books printed in the 15th century (incunabula), an expensive passion which he shared with King George III.  He acquired an impressive 534 of these, representing fine printing from all the major early presses (including 10 Caxtons). 

Amongst the many treasures preserved at Glasgow in other collections may be found:

The library of emblem literature originally formed by Sir William Stirling Maxwell  (1818-1878) is another collection of international importance. Consisting of some 2,000 volumes from Alciati's pioneering Emblematum liber of 1531 through to 19th century publications, it is complemented by many allied, illustrated works.  

The Scottish Theatre Archive is a continually expanding collection that plays an important national role in helping to preserve Scotland's theatrical heritage. This extensive archive houses an incredible array of material including programmes scripts, production notes photographs, posters, press cuttings, business papers and correspondence. Amongst the largest collections are the records of the Citizens' Theatre, Scottish Ballet and the BBC Script collection. 

Other major collections include:

Explore all these collections and more by using our collections descriptions index or subject index.