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Rare Books and Special Collections

About the Rare Books collection

In 1962, the Library established the Rare Books collection as part of the State Reference Library collection

The collection was formed from the General Reference Library, which in turn contained the original collection of the Australian Subscription Library, the predecessor to the State Library of New South Wales.

There are approximately 30,000 books in the collection dating from the early thirteenth century up to the modern day.

The collection includes illuminated manuscripts, incunabula, artist’s books, limited edition, one of a kind books and books from private printing presses.

Special Collections

The Library also has significant collections, known as Special Collections, in the Rare Books collection. These collections cover subjects like art, chess, travel and magic.

The Library has mostly acquired these collections through bequest and donation but the Library also purchased collections such as the Penguin Books collection. The Library continues to add material to some of the collections such as the Donald MacPherson Collection of Art and Literature.

While individual items within these collections may not be rare or valuable, the collections themselves are unique and irreplaceable.

There are special catalogues for Special Collections. Ask at the Special Collections desk to see if a Special Collection has a catalogue.

Building the collection

We are continuing to expand the Rare Books collection through new acquisitions.

We consider each acquisition based on its relevance to the Library's collections, uniqueness, importance to the history of printing and binding, and its association interest.

We also move material from other Library collections to this collection if the fragility, historical importance or monetary value has changed.

What's in the collection?

The Library’s Rare Books collection includes books printed in Australia before 1850 and books printed overseas before 1800, but these aren’t the only items in the collection.

You will also find books that have been published much later and:

  • examples of exceptional binding, including work by notable binders like Rivere and Sons
  • heavily illustrated books such as artists books and books illustrated with lithographs
  • grangerised material
  • books with fore-edge painting
  • books with significant historical or literary provenance
  • materials printed on vellum or other unusual materials
  • books printed using unusual printing processes or typefaces
  • significant limited editions
  • books printed by significant private presses
  • miniature books smaller than 10 cm
  • books with special historical or cultural significance
  • restricted access items, such as erotica
  • Special Collections containing significant individual items
  • Special Collections acquired by the Library as formed collections.

Collection strengths

The Rare Books collection's strengths include:
  • bibliography
  • development of printing
  • social and political history
  • illustration
  • topography and travel

What is fore-edge painting?

Image of a book with a fore-edge painting

In memoriam
Digital order number: a2806002

Fore-edge painting is an artform using a book.

The front edge of the pages are painted, usually using watercolour, while the book is held so the page edges are offset.

Over the top of the painting, the edge of the pages are then gilt.

When the book is closed, it looks like a normal gilt edged book, but when held the right way, the hidden picture is revealed.

Digitised rare books

We've digitised some books and pages from the Rare Books collection.

Search the Library's catalogue to find digitised material.

What is grangerised material?

Grangerised material is a printed work that has had extra content added later, such as writing, original works of art, photographs or maps.

The English and Australian cookery book