Introduction to Bolton’s Special Collections

The rare books in Bolton Libraries’ collections

Bolton Public Libraries

For as long as Bolton has had a public library (164 years and counting) it has collected books which were a little out of the ordinary. Often too delicate, too old or too valuable to sit on the open shelves or be available for loan, these would be stored “behind the scenes” and be brought out to be consulted on request.

Collections of materials such as these are known as Special Collections. In the past they were sometimes called “Rare Books” but as librarians often had to point out, not everything in such collections was a book, nor was it necessarily rare.

At the Central Library there still is a Rare Book Collection, which sits as a part of our Special Collections. The oldest items are from the 15th century and the youngest is from the 1970s. They were acquired by the library either as special purchases or donations, or as “legacy items” from the private subscription and institutional libraries which served the people of Bolton before the Public Libraries Act of 1850.

Title page of Godefrey of Boloyne
An example of William Morris’ Kelmscott Press


In November of 2015 we had the opportunity, thanks to the placement in the library of a student of librarianship from the Hochschule der Medien in Stuttgart, to update the catalogue records for our Rare Book Collection and finally make them accessible to the public via the Library Catalogue. Since these are special items, they have to be catalogued in a particularly detailed way which includes a lot of physical description, information about the publishers, printers, editors and authors and even records of previous owners, known as provenance.

In addition to cataloguing each item, our placement student researched each one using online catalogues, printed bibliographies and handlists of books. Some of the items in our Rare Books Collection are unique, others are historically significant and many more are simply beautiful examples of the arts of printing and bookbinding.

Our placement student chose 7 items from the 397 in the collection to blog about. Each one helps tell the story of Bolton Libraries and in turn, the story of Bolton itself.