Rare books and special collections

Book of Hours Book of Hours, Paris?, c. 1490
Manuscript in Latin on vellum
Location: RB MSS 70

Rare books and special collections of the State Reference Library was formed in 1962 although the base of the collections were formed in the nineteenth century through the first Australian Subscription Library and later the Free Public Library. The collection contains a range of material from medieval manuscripts to modern private press and artists' books.

The collections particularly support research in bibliography, and the development of printing, social and political history, the art of illustration, topography and travel. Notable items contains a selection of significant items within the collection.

Additions to the collection are considered on their relevance to existing holdings, importance in the history of printing, binding and association interest. Transfers from the general collections are considered, based on their fragility, historical or monetary value.

Of particular interest within the rare books collections are a number of special collections formed through bequests to the Library or purchased as complete collections of particular subject interest.

Use Accessing items to find out how to view material from the special collections.

Contact us for further details on material held in the collection or to search the various in-house catalogues.

Notable items

Biggest
Three volumes called Carte topographique de l'Egypte which measure 112 cm x 70 cm (42" x 27 ½") and weigh more than 22 kilos each. They are a part of the immense Description de l'Egypte which was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte and published between 1809 and 1828. The other 20 volumes are only a little smaller in size.
Location: BX 932A/58 Strong Room

Smallest
A miniature book containing the Lord's Prayer in English (Anglican and Catholic versions), Dutch, French, German, Spanish and Swedish. This is a true printing from hand-set type, not a photographic reproduction, and is hand sewn and bound in full leather with gold stamped cover and spine. The size is about that of an aspirin tablet, less than 5 mm (0.2") in height.
Location: RB L12/S

Greatest monetary value
John James Audubon's Birds of America was published in London between 1827 and 1838. These four volumes, with 435 aquatint plates, are estimated to be worth around 8.8 million American dollars. This set may have been the one which belonged to the naturalist John Gould and was acquired from the London dealer Henry Sotheran in 1885.
Location: BX 598.273/1-4 Set

Oldest manuscript
The Book of Isaiah from the Old Testament in the Latin Vulgate version. This dates from about 1225 AD and is of Italian origin. There is only a little illumination in the book but it is a good and reasonably well preserved example of the layout of a medieval text with commentary.
Location: Richardson 221

Oldest printed book
Johannes Duns Scotus' Quaestiones in primum librum sententiarum, published in Venice in 1472. This book, although slightly fire-damaged, contains the complete text and is the oldest complete printed volume in any of the collections of the State Library of New South Wales. It is also distinguished in its own right as the first printing of an important work by a major philosopher.
Location: Inc Sc 87

Rarest printed book
Secreta mulierum et virorum by Henry of Saxony (often incorrectly attributed to St Albert the Great) was published in Paris in 1490. This particular edition is very rare.
Location: RB Inc S5

Other important works

Hypnerotomachia poliphili published in Venice in 1499. This work, by the Dominican monk, Francesco Colonna, has been described as the most beautiful book ever printed. It was the first book to be designed and laid out as a complete visual unit with integration of type and illustration. The engraver of the original woodcuts remains unknown though their authorship has been assigned to a number of great masters of the Renaissance including Bellini, Montagna, Raphael and Botticelli.
Location: Z/LQ2/C

William Curtis began publishing The botanical magazine, or, Flower-garden displayed in 1787. The journal, which is still published today, was designed to illustrate and describe the most ornamental foreign plants. The illustrations in full colour are remarkable for their beauty and their botanical accuracy. The Library holds all but one volume of The botanical magazine.
Location: RB DS580.5/2

The Statutes of England includes an early copy of the Magna Carta and 20 other English statutes, the most recent of which is dated to 1330 AD. The statutes are written on vellum and the original binding of oak boards has been preserved.
Location: MSS Richardson 14

Pierre Joseph Redoute's most celebrated work, Les roses, was published in Paris in three volumes between 1817 and 1824. This is the most famous work by an artist often considered to be the greatest of the nineteenth century flower engravers. The delicate stipple engravings are hand finished in colour and the work is dedicated to his patroness, the Duchess of Berry. Les roses depicts the rose collection of the Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. Her collection contained most of the known varieties in the Western world in the first decades of the nineteenth century.
Location: Strong Room LF5/R

Hartmann Schedel's Liber chronicarum or the Nuremberg Chronicle was published in 1493 in a Latin and a German version. This was probably the first great illustrated book and contains 1809 woodcuts taken from 645 wood blocks, some of which may be by Albrecht Durer. It is one of the first books about whose publication we know any details, as both the original contracts, drafts and prospectuses still survive. The Library holds the Latin version.
Location: Richardson 275

Mr William Shakespeare's comedies, histories, & tragedies. Published according to the true original copies. Printed by Isaac Jaggard, London,1623. The First and Third Folios are housed in Rare books and special collections while the Second and Fourth Folios are in the Mitchell Library. For additional information regarding all Folios click here.

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