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Overviews of the Collections

The British and Irish Collections at the Library of Congress

Josephus Nelson,
Former Research Specialist, Development Office

"'I am astonished,' said Miss Bingley, 'that my father should have left so small a collection of books. What a delightful library you have at Pemberley, Mr. Darcy! 'It ought to be good,' he replied, 'it has been the work of many generations.' 'And then you have added so much to it yourself, you are always buying books.' 'I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these.'" --Jane Austen


The Library of Congress has very strong holdings of British and Irish materials. These collections have grown and improved over the years because the Librarians of Congress and their staffs have carefully worked to strengthen them. A casual perusal of some of the early annual reports reflects this point. In 1872, for example, "$5,000 were granted to purchase English county histories, and this was supplemented June 20, 1874, by an additional appropriation of $2,000 for the same purpose". [Library of Congress, Report of the Librarian of Congress (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1901), 190. ] Librarian John Russell Young reported in the 1898 Annual Report that "attention has been given to the current literature of Great Britain," and that "we have added to the Library nearly every useful book that has come in the current year from the English press." [Library of Congress, Report of the Librarian of Congress (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1898), 5.]

Works treating the British Isles are found throughout the Library, for example in the Rare Book, Manuscript, Music, Law Library, and other divisions that have custody of unique collections, as well as in the general collection. The vast holdings of the Microform Reading Room and the Machine Readable Reading Room also offer collections not found elsewhere in the Library.

General Collections

The general collections contain many noteworthy works. From Victorian Britain, for example, LC has the Vanity Fair Albums (1869-1908) with their caricatural masterpieces depicting sovereigns, statesmen, judges, and other important personages of the day. The Library's collections also contain important items from the interdisciplinary field of design--classed in both art and technology. Examples include the Plans, Elevations, and Details of the Alhambra of Jules Goury and Owen Jones, pioneers in chromolithography, and Jones's The Grammar of Ornament. Works by some of the major Victorian civil engineers--Thomas Telford, for example--are also in the Library collections. Noteworthy books relating to Telford are The Life of Thomas Telford, Civil Engineer, and An Historical and Descriptive account of the Suspension Bridge Constructed over the Menai Strait.

The collections also contain many books dealing with nineteenth century British travel and exploration. Many of the remarkable travel books published in the wake of Captain Cook's voyages include beautiful hand-colored plates. George Barrington's An Account of a Voyage to New South Wales and Pavel Sviniin's Sketches of Russia are examples of the British vision of distant places.

English and Irish children's books are well-represented in the general collection, and include poetry, fairy tales, folk literature and other forms. Many of these books are available in both British and American editions--permitting the reader to note the changes made in the texts. There are also many books of Irish fairy tales, although they are frequently American editions. The Library recently has begun purchasing such titles in Gaelic. Many of the leading illustrators of children's books are represented in the collections.

Rare Books and Manuscripts

The Joseph Meredith Toner Collection, the John Boyd Thacher Collection, and the John Davis Batchelder Collection are among the Library's older collections. These collections are housed in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. They chiefly represent Americana, but they also contain useful source material for scholars of Great Britain and Ireland. The Toner Collection is a storehouse of American medical history, but included in it are long runs of English journals. The Thacher Collection contains an autographic collection of British royal documents that spans the years from the reign of Henry V to that of Edward VII and in which Mary Stuart, Elizabeth I, Charles II, and other monarchs are represented. Included are 97 manuscripts, two broadsides, and 132 prints, photographs and drawings. The Batchelder Collection contains a group of British cartoons directed against Abraham Lincoln, Shakespeare's first folio edition (1623), and the quarto edition of Romeo and Juliet (1599).

In addition to the Batchelder Shakespeare material, there are other Shakespeare holdings. Rare Book owns two copies of Shakespeare's First Folio, two copies of the Second Folio, one copy of the Third Folio, and one copy of the Fourth Folio. In some instances the provenance is given for the folios. The second Folio, for example, was given by the Gill family in 1942, who stated (according to the Rare Book Division subject file): "It is our wish that, if possible, this folio should be presented to the United States of America as a mark of gratitude of the ordinary people of England for all they have done and are doing."

The George Fabyan Collection treats the Shakespeare-Bacon controversy. Fabyan, a cryptographer, assembled a collection having to do with the controversy over the authorship of Shakespeare's plays. It contains works by Sir Francis Bacon published between 1597 and 1640, as well as secondary sources written about him and other important men and women of the period. Of the 69 distinct editions of Bacon's work listed in Pollard's Short Title Catalog, 33 are in the Fabyan Collection.

The Francis Longe Collection holds theatrical works published in England between 1607 and 1812, including plays, satires, musical dramas, pastorals, burlesques, masques, and poetry, as well as theatrical adaptations and translations attributed to more than 600 dramatists. The collection is notably strong in the plays of secondary playwrights of the day. There is an edition of the Longe Collection in the Microform Reading Room as well.

The Sir Francis Drake Collection will help the researcher "learn about Drake," as the collection's donor expressed it, "in the same way as anyone living in Europe during his lifetime would have done." It contains maps, books, portraits, medals, and manuscripts pertaining to Drake's life as a "sea dog," his trip around the world, and the impact of England's naval warfare against Spain. Highlights of the collection are the portrait of Drake attributed to Jodocus Hondius, Nicola van Sype's engraved map of Drake's route around the globe, and a letter exchanged between Gerard Mercator and Abraham Ortelius, leading cartographers of the day.

In addition to these collections, important material relating to Britain and British literature is found in the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, the Library's premier collection of rare and special items. For example, "among the glories of the Rosenwald Collection is the remarkable assemblage of books, plates, proofs, and engravings relating to the works of William Blake, the great English poet, painter, and philosopher. The collection rivals any in the world and contains at least one copy of 14 of the 20 illuminated books described in William Blake's Illuminated Books, a Census." [Library of Congress, Treasures from the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collections: an Exhibit Honoring Mr. Rosenwald's Eighty-Second Birthday (Washington, D. C.: 1973), p. 61.] Rosenwald also acquired a number of books printed by William Caxton, the editor, translator, and first English printer. Other noteworthy items in the Rare Book Division are Jacobus de Cessolis' The Play of Chess (1478), the 1485 edition of the Golden Legende, the Royal Book (1486), the second edition of the Myrrour of the Worlde (1490), and St. Bonaventura's The Myrroure of the Blessyd Lyf of Jhesu Christ (1490).

Also in the Rosenwald Collection are three Christopher Saxton atlases. Saxton, an Elizabethan draftsman, undertook at Elizabeth's command to survey and draw maps of all the counties of England and Wales. His atlas was the first collection of English and Welsh survey maps. The Library also holds a collection of books by the Kelmscott Press. Started in 1891 by William Morris, the Press represented the revival of the art of printing in late Victorian Britain. It produced 53 titles, of which 33 were printed on vellum. In ten instances the LC collection has both the vellum and paper copies. The Kelmscott Chaucer, the most famous book created by the Press, is one of the finest examples of the art of printing.

The Library has several collections of well known British authors, including two Kipling collections in the Rare Book Division (the William Montelle Carpenter Collection and the Lloyd H. Chandler Collection), Somerset Maugham and A. E. Housman holdings in Manuscript Division, and a collection featuring Hugh Walpole in Rare Book.

The Carpenter Kipling collection contains first and later editions of Kipling books, stories and magazine articles written by Kipling, cartoons, photographs, corrected galley proofs, original letters and sketches, poems, and autograph manuscripts of Kipling stories. The Chandler collection includes various editions of Kipling's work, as well as biographies, critical material, and miscellanea.

W. Somerset Maugham gave the manuscript of his novel Of Human Bondage to the Library in 1946. In 1950 he presented the original manuscript of The Artistic Temperament of Stephen Carey, the "aboriginal ancestor" of Of Human Bondage. These two manuscripts are complemented by other assorted Maugham papers in the Library's holdings. The A. E. Housman Collection and the Grant Richards Collection detail the life and work of the poet A. E. Housman. The Housman Collection features general and personal correspondence, notes, manuscript drafts of poems, galley and page proofs, and magazine and newspaper clippings. It includes song settings for A Shropshire Lad, contracts, and even menus. The collection assembled by Grant Richards, the British author and publisher, complements the Library's Housman Collection and mainly contains papers relating to the preparation of Richards' Housman, 1897-1936. It includes manuscript chapters, interviews, galleys, page proofs, and correspondence with Laurence Housman and Mrs. Katherine E. Symons (the poet's brother and sister) and with John Drinkwater, Sir William Rothenstein, Ronald Firbank, B. W. Huebsch, George Macaulay Trevelyan, Witter Bynner, and Edmund Wilson.

Sir Hugh Seymour Walpole, popular novelist and critic, scored his first success with Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill in 1911, and continued to write well-received novels until the 1930s. The Library, in the Jean Hersholt Collection, has letters, literary manuscripts, and first editions of the writings of Walpole. There are sixty inscribed publications and the holographed manuscripts of The Duchess of Wrexe, The Captives, and Wintersmoon.

The Moreton Frewen Collection, housed in the Manuscript Division, is important for the social history of late Victorian, Edwardian, and Georgian Britain. Frewen, Winston Churchill's uncle by marriage and a member of Parliament from Ireland, had many contacts within the British and American establishments, for example with Henry Cabot Lodge, Austen Chamberlain, and William Jennings Bryan. His government service and business activities in North America, Africa, Asia, and England are all recorded in speeches, letters, essays, photographs, and clippings. The collection indicates Frewen's concern with bimetallism, world trade, and tariff matters, and it offers a remarkable glimpse into the life of an upper class man of that period.


The Library's microform collections are often untapped, but they can be a rich source of information. British and Irish Biographies, 1840-1940, for example, has biographical entries for more than 180,000 persons. About 7,000 of the most important works commissioned by the British government during the two world wars are reproduced in British War Art of the 20th Century. The drawings of Robert and James Adam, two of the most famous eighteenth century architects, are available in the microfilmed set Drawings of Robert and James Adam in Sir John Soane's Museum. A priceless collection of illuminated manuscripts can be found in Major Treasures in the Bodleian Library. The historian can trace the development of the Royal Society of London, one of the oldest scientific organizations, in Journal Books of Scientific Meetings, 1660-1800. Proceedings of the Irish parliament are contained in Printed Records of the Parliament of Ireland, 1613-1800. The National Inventory of Documentary sources in the United Kingdom is a key to thousands of unpublished manuscript collections in Britain and Ireland. The Josephine Butler Letter Collection, the Women's Labour League, and the Social and Political Status of Women in Britain are only a few of the many excellent collections featuring the social, political and, economic concerns of British women. These collections are easily identified and serviced in the Microform Reading Room.

The Library's Foreign Copying Program is another source of major British microform collections. Inaugurated in 1905 by Librarian Herbert Putnam, the program has permitted the Library to obtain from other countries copies of manuscripts and records pertaining to American history. The principal British repositories have been tapped, including the British Library, the Public Record Office, the Colonial Office, Lambeth Palace, and Windsor Castle.

Genealogy and Folklife

The Local History and Genealogy Reading Room contains British and Irish parish registers, family histories, record society publications, and county histories of interest to genealogists, historians, and social historians.

Three collections in the American Folklife Center are of interest to students of folk culture: the James Madison Carpenter Collection, the Percy Grainger Collection, and the Burt Feintuch Northumberland Collection. Amassed in the late twenties and the early thirties, the Carpenter Collection includes folk plays, sea chanties, ballads, children's singing games, riddles, and nursery rhymes, ritual dances, and carols. The Percy Grainger Collection features field recordings of English folk songs made in Gloucestershire and Lincolnshire during the years 1906 to 1909. The Burt Feintuch Collection captures, in forty hours of recordings, the history of a particular kind of English regional music, that of Northumberland, England. More particularly the collection emphasizes the country dance music played on the Northumbrian smallpipes, accordions, mouth harps, fiddles, and flutes. These sessions were conducted in homes, on radio programs, at festivals, and other places. Interwoven with the performances are interviews with musicians and instrument makers that convey different points of view regarding the performance of the music.

Prints and Photographs

One of the largest American collections of British political prints is the Print and Photograph Division's British Cartoon Collection. Once part of the collection at Windsor Castle, the Library purchased this significant group of prints in 1921. The 10,000 original cartoons celebrate, for the most part, British political life, society, manners, and the theater. Included are the cartoons of such famous caricaturists as Thomas Rowlandson, James Gillray, George Cruikshank, and Henry Bunbury.

Peter Henry Emerson's Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads, and Thomas Annan's Photographs of Old Closes, Streets, etc., Taken 1868-1877 reflect the development of photography into an art form. In Norfolk Broads, Emerson documents English country life at the end of the nineteenth century. The book appeared in a limited edition of 200, and contained 40 platinotypes. Annan's book is not quite so rare, but it too represents the flowering of photography in the Victorian era. Both books are in the custody of the Prints and Photographs Division.


The Law Library at the Library of Congress has a wealth of British legal materials. In addition to the codes, official gazettes, court reports, and other publications there are at least five special collections of notable interest: The William Blackstone Collection, the English Yearbook Collection, the British Appeal Papers, and the English and American Trials Collection. In fact, "so extensive are the British law holdings at LC that only a very few British libraries equal or surpass them in number or quality." [Louis A. Pitschmann, Scholars' Guide to Washington, D. C. for Northwest European Studies (Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1984), 45].

The numerous American, Irish, and English editions of Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England--a primary text on the development of the English common law--form the core of the William Blackstone Collection. His many other writings and a number of abridgments, extracts, and expositions on the Commentaries are also included. Important trials held in Britain and the United States since the sixteenth century are covered by the English and American Trials Collection. This collection has official transcripts, confessions, and a variety of other publications. The Yearbook Collection is an important source concerning early English law, and includes the reports of pleadings in English court cases from the reign of Edward I to that of Henry VIII.

The Law Library's British Appeal Papers consists of records from the House of Lords, records of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, and the Colonial Appeals Papers. The Law Library is one of the few libraries outside the Commonwealth to own collections of these cases. Appeal cases in the House of Lords, the nation's final arbiter of appeal cases, represent those cases sent to the Lords from the highest courts of England, Scotland, and Wales. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council acts as the final court of appeal from British colonies, protectorates, trust territories, and certain Commonwealth nations. Appeals from Church of England ecclesiastical courts, medical tribunals, and the Admiralty Court of the Queen's Bench Division are also handled by this Council. The records in the Colonial Appeals Papers concern cases appealed to the Privy Council from Virginia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and other British colonies that were submitted to the Privy Council in the eighteenth century.

American-British Ties

The longstanding ties between America and Britain are such that many of the Library's collections include material treating both Great Britain and the United States and different aspects of the special relationship between the two countries.

Manuscript Division owns the Sir Thomas Phillipps Collection containing papers relating to Britain's administration of the American colonies. Included are the journals of the Lords of the Committee for Trade and Plantations, journals of the Council of Foreign Plantations (1670-1686), and accounts of colonial revenues (1701-1712). Court documents involving Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Virginia also make up the collection, as well as assorted papers pertaining to Maryland (1696-1709), Massachusetts (1695-1700), and Virginia (1686-1707). British legal cases covering the reigns of Henry VI to Elizabeth I, charters from the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries, and genealogical records from several English counties are other important documents in this collection.

The George Chalmers Collection, 1641-1825, a portion of the Library's Peter Force Library, complements the Phillipps Collection. Assembled by George Chalmers (1742-1845), a Scottish- born colonial administrator, the collection consists of his notes, copies of official documents, and original records. It includes, for example, letters, orders, laws, and notes about the jurisdiction of the Church of England in the colonies. A report by General Thomas Gage and William Johnson describing the disturbances on the frontier after the Peace of 1763 can be found, as well as Robert Quary's 1702 report on the state of the colonies.

Three collections of maps reflect the Anglo-American connection. The Richard Howe Collection contains maps showing the coastline of North and South America, and one of the maps shows the placement of British military headquarters. Drawn up in the 1750s, 1760s, and 1770s these maps and charts may have been used by Howe, the commander-in-chief of the British fleet in North America, during the early years of the Revolutionary War. Manuscript maps in the John Hills Collection show in very great detail the British Army operations in New Jersey during the American Revolution. The maps, prepared by John Hills, a military engineer, were originally a part of the papers of Sir Henry Clinton, commander-in-chief of British military operations in the colonies during the years 1778 and 1781. The William Faden Collection has maps showing the campaigns of Sir William Howe, and the British generals Charles Cornwallis, Edward Braddock, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton. Prepared by British military engineers and forming the collection of William Faden, a major eighteenth century map publisher, these manuscript and printed maps are an important part of the Library's materials on the Revolutionary War period. Maps in the Howe and Faden collections are all housed in the Geography and Map Division.

Many other collections touch on the American-British tie. The Manuscript Division has a minor treasure--the notebook kept by Woodrow Wilson while on an 1899 holiday in Britain. Wilson, an instructor at Princeton at the time, traveled 582 miles by bicycle, boat, and train, touring England, Ireland, and Scotland. Also in the Manuscript Division are the papers of Whitelaw Reid and Robert Worth Bingham, ambassadors to Britain from 1905 to 1912 and 1933 to 1937 respectively, which document U.S.-British relations of these periods.

Finally, the Henry James Collection in the Rare Book Division is worth noting. A masterful novelist, confidant of men and women of letters, and staunch Anglophile, James is represented by first editions of his English and American titles, later editions and revisions of his work, publications to which he contributed, selected books from the general collection, and a rare 1889 dramatization of Daisy Miller.

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  December 8, 2016
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