This course will pursue a panoptic view of the growth of book culture and the practice of book collecting. Beginning with the well-documented libraries of the ancient world in various media – including the cuneiform library of Ashurbanipal in Assyria and the papyrus scrolls of Alexandria and Pergamum, as well as recent discoveries from the ‘Villa of Papyri’ in Herculaneum – we will examine the role of libraries in the context of power and identity. The course will proceed to explore collecting in medieval culture, on both institutional and personal levels, through monastic libraries and individual collections; the practice and cultural impact of book collecting in the Renaissance, with emphasis on the development of the individual collector; and the development of a culture of collecting in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, focusing on the social diversification of the practice through the impact of the Industrial Revolution. These topics will lead up to a global retrospective from which to interrogate the practice of collecting and the concept of book culture.

Guest lectures from international experts in specific time periods, including medieval, Renaissance and early modern collecting, will complement the series of seminars. The course will also include lectures and off-site visits to The British Library, the Wellcome Collection, and one of the Inns of Court. 

The course is aimed at anyone with an interest in book collecting generally and requires no prior knowledge. Librarians and curators who look after historic book collections may find useful contextualisation of their collections through this course. 

Additional Information

Learning Outcomes

  • Critically evaluate key developments in the practice of book collecting from the ancient world to the present day. 
  • Understand and analyse the institutional contexts of book collecting in selected periods. 
  • Evaluate the different motivations and social purposes of book collecting in the selected periods.
  • Understand and analyse how collecting practice corresponded with the broader understanding of books and knowledge in the selected periods. 


This course will take place in Senate House.

Course Tutors