What is it that makes a book a rare book? A book may designated 'rare' because it is old or valuable, beautifully produced, a famous work, or all of these.
It may contain fine engravings or hand-coloured lithographs, such as John James Audubon’s Birds of America or John Gould’s Mammals of Australia. It may have been printed on fine paper and be beautifully bound, such as the Kelmscott Press edition of The works of Geoffrey Chaucer. It may have been owned, or even annotated, by a significant historical figure, such as our copy of John Knox’s Bible, which contains extensive notes in his hand.
The Library’s oldest books, including our collection of medieval manuscripts, and all books printed before 1801, can be found in the Rare Books collection. The collection includes first editions by significant literary authors, from Shakespeare to Patrick White, foundation works about Australia and Victoria, early books written for children, and books by authors whose ideas changed the world, such as Charles Darwin’s On the origin of species.
The collection places particular emphasis on the history of the book, and includes many works that showcase the art and design of book illustration and production techniques. While the majority of the books in the collection are old, we also collect recently published books that show new trends in publishing, such as graphic novels and zines and books handmade by artists.
The Library's Rare Books collection is held in storage and can be viewed by contacting Library staff to arrange an appointment in the Heritage Collections Reading Room. You can also see items from Rare Books on display in the Library’s permanent exhibition Mirror of the world.