St John’s College holds significant collections of early printed and rare books with around 20,000 books printed before 1850.
Athanasius Kircher's stellar alphabet

Almost all subject areas are covered by St John's early printed and rare books, but there is a particular strength in Medicine and Theology. Among the modern special collections are those relating to the College’s alumni as well as a collection of livres d’artiste and private press editions.

St John's collection of early printed books includes 143 incunabula, i.e. books printed before 1501. The oldest is a copy of the first ever printed edition of Cicero’s De officiis (Mainz: Johannes Fust and Peter Schoeffer, 1465), shelfmark: A.2.4.

The College holds several books produced by England's first printer, William Caxton (1422-1491). These include a copy of the second edition of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Westminster: William Caxton, 1483) with contemporary hand-colouring, shelfmark A.2.5. The Canterbury Tales are bound with other works by Chaucer and a manuscript copy of Lydgate's Siege of Thebes. A full digitization is available at Digital Bodleian.

St John’s College’s collection of early printed books amassed from early donations and bequests during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Rather unusually for an early modern foundation, St John’s first book donation consisted of manuscripts. The earliest significant influx of printed books arrived in 1565 through the bequest of Thomas Paynell, who may be identified as the translator and chaplain to Henry VIII and orator to both Mary I and Elizabeth I (his student notebook is discussed here). The largest donation the College ever received was made by Sir William Paddy (1554-1634), St John’s alumnus and renowned physician to Elizabeth I's trusted advisor William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and to James I. He gave the college in total over 800 books on a number of occasions; the vast majority of them printed books, including the above-mentioned hand-coloured copy of the 'Caxton Chaucer'. Another noteworthy bequest came from the alumnus Nathaniel Crynes (1685/6-1745), a book collector. His will instructed that the Bodleian Library had first choice of his immense collection and St John’s second. The college added arout 1,500 items to its library from this bequest.

Today, St John’s collection of early printed books encompass a broad range of subject areas. Highlights include:

  • A.1.1: Peter Apian’s sumptuous Astronomicum caesareum (1540) with hand-coloured astronomical charts and moving pieces, some of which are still attached by threads with the original seed pearls.
  • A.1.2: Abraham Ortelius’s Theatrum orbis terrarum, first published in 1570 and often described as the first modern atlas, in two complete hand-coloured copies from 1579 and 1603 respectively. The copy of the 1603 edition is briefly introduced here.
  • A.2.1: The so-called second folio of William Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1632.
  • A.2.10: John Eliot’s Algonquin Bible (1663), a translation of the Geneva Bible into the language of the Massachusett’s people and the first Bible published in the British colonies of North America.
  • A.2.11: An elaborately hand-coloured copy of the 1530 edition of a Book of Hours (Use of Salisbury) printed by Germain Hardouyn in Paris. Tradition has it that St John's copy was once owned by Queen Mary of Modena (1658-1718), wife of James II. A detailed discussion of the book is available here and a full digitization at Digital Bodleian.
  • Omega.subt.26-27: Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755), the standard dictionary of the English language before the Oxford English Dictionary’s first edition (1884-1928).
  • Vet.Fol.HOG: An album of prints by William Hogarth that may have been compiled by Hogarth himself from loose sheets between 1756 and 1758.
  • Several novels of Charles Dickens in first editions, including The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836-37), Oliver Twist, or The Parish Boy’s Progress (1837-38), and The Tale of Two Cities (1859).

Beardsworth Collection

The author Millicent Monica Beardsworth has donated a collection of 87 early printed books on Charles I and the Civil War.  

Catalogue: The collection is catalogued on SOLO. You can find all books of this collection with an advanced search restricted to St John’s College Library for the shelfmark 'Beardsworth”.

Bulmer-Thomas Collection

A valuable collection of more than 1,000 books on the history of mathematics, astronomy, and science, which was bequeathed by the politician Ivor Bulmer-Thomas, MP, (1905-93). Ten percent of the collection consists of early editions and copies with significant provenances or fine bindings. Highlights include several early editions of Euclid (including Erhard Ratdolt’s first edition from 1482) and numerous early astronomies.

Catalogue: The collection is catalogued on SOLO. You can find all books of this collection with an advanced search restricted to St John’s College Library for “Bulmer-Thomas” in the copy-specific notes.

Catling Collection

St John’s has acquired a collection of books from the library of the late archaeologist Dr Hector Catling CBE, FSA (1924 – 2013), an alumnus and Honorary Fellow of the College. The Catling Collection comprises two principal subject areas:  brass-rubbing and the county of Somerset. The collection covers the 18th to the 21st centuries, and and highlights include a bound extract from Grose’s Somerset (c. late 18th century), a 19th-century folio book reproducing European brasses, and a small number of Dr Catling’s own rubbings.

Catalogue: The collection is catalogued on SOLO. You can find all books of this collection with an advanced search restricted to St John’s College Library “Catling” in copy-specific notes.

Robert Graves’s Working Library & Papers

Robert Graves (1895-1985) was a poet and novelist who is best-known for his historical novel I, Claudius. Although he won a Classics scholarship before the First World War, Graves quickly switched to studying English when he joined St John’s in 1919.

Find out more about our extensive Robert Graves Collection here.

Hassett Collection

In 2014 St John’s College received a donation of 17 items relating to the poet W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) from Dr Joseph Hassett in celebration of the Professor John Kelly's edition of Yeats's letters (published by Oxford University Press in five volumes so far). This collection includes two autograph letters from Yeats together with several first editions of works by Yeats, such as publications by the Cuala Press established by Yeats’s sister, and items owned and signed by members of Yeats’s circle.

In 2018, Dr Hassett donated his collection of editions of the works of the Anglo-Irish poet John Murphy (1927-2018). These 24 items include volumes with personal dedications to Dr Hassett and autographs of Murphy’s poems in several volumes as well as a framed typescript of the poem ‘Newgrange’ from The Price of Stone, which is accompanied by three black-and-white photos of this Neolithic monument.

Catalogue: The collection is catalogued on SOLO. You can find all books of this collection with an advanced search restricted to St John’s College Library for the shelfmark “Hassett”.


This small collection of early printed books comes from the library of Professor Francis Higman, a St John’s College alumnus. Professor Higman taught French literature, specialising in the 16th century. He was also a renowned expert of book history, especially of religious books. Both of these interests are reflected in the 25 books now at St John’s College.

Catalogue: The collection is catalogued on SOLO. You can find all books of this collection with an advanced search restricted to St John’s College Library for the shelfmark “Higman”.

Housman Collections

Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936) was a Cambridge Classics scholar and poet, best-known for A Shropshire Lad. Housman studied Classics at St John’s College from 1877 to 1881 and later became an honorary Fellow in 1911. Next to a small collection of letters and other personal papers, the College has two small but significant collections of books relating to Housman.

  • Housman’s Library of Classical Works: The collection consists of about 300 books and pamphlets. Their particular value lies in the evidence they bear of Housman’s textual criticism, in the form of notes written in the margins and on loose leaves. It was acquired in 1936 from Basil Blackwell.
  • Sparrow’s Housman Collection: John H. A. Sparrow (1906-1992), Warden of All Souls College 1952-1977, donated his collection of books and pamphlets by and about Housman to St John’s in 1984. The collection consists of works from Housman’s own library (many with marginal notes or occasional inserts) as well as books by and about Housman (many bearing Sparrow’s marginal notes and inserted materials often associated with Sparrow’s reviews of these publications), and works Sparrow believed would have formed part of Housman’s collection, although these copies are without a Housman provenance.

Catalogue: There is no current online finding aid, please email to  if you are interested in the A.E. Housman Collections.

Recent Donations

In 2019, St John’s College has received three large donations:

  • Lady Conran donated the library of her late husband Michael Seifert (1942-2017), St John’s alumnus and solicitor, who helped the miners and their leaders during the strike in 1984/85.
  • Numerous books from the library of Professor Donald Russell, late Emeritus Fellow of St John’s and previously Fellow and Tutor in Classics from 1948 to 1988. These books form now part of the St John's Classics lending collection.
  • Dr Peter Southern donated the library of his late father Sir Richard Southern (1912-2001), renowned historian and President of St John’s College from 1969 to 1981.

The College's collection of 20th-century livres d'artiste and private press editions was established by Dr Peter Hacker, Fellow Librarian 1985-2006. It is particularly strong on works of Atelier 17 and soft-ground etching in general.

Catalogue: The collection is catalogued on SOLO. You can find all books of this collection with an advanced search restricted to St John’s College Library for the shelfmark “spec coll lda”. There is also a descriptive catalogue, which may be downloaded here.

St John’s College owns five early printed Chinese books. These are on permanent deposit in the Weston Library, all bearing shelfmarks beginning ‘St John’s Coll. Chin’. One of these is a complete edition of an important 18th-century dictionary in their original brocade boxes. A notebook in the Joseph Banks Collection of the Kent Record Office records a visit of an early Chinese traveller, Whang at Tong, to St John’s in the company of Captain John Blake of the East India Company, and of his having put a Kangxi dictionary in order in June 1775, which is assumed to be ‘St John’s Coll. Chin. 5’.

The other Chinese books are parts of cheap 16th- to 18th-century texts, which were cut up to sell to European collectors who would not have understood what they were purchasing, and were only interested in them as exotic artefacts.