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Special collections

The Lower Library contains the College’s special collections of manuscripts, incunabula and early-printed books, and other rare material, some of which may be borrowed by members of the College.

For the most part visiting scholars will need to contact us to make an appointment to consult items in the Lower Library. This will be under supervision by a member of staff.


More than 350 manuscripts survive from the medieval library, some in their original bindings. This is the largest surviving medieval college library in Cambridge, and it is especially rich in the discipline of Roman law. Most of these manuscripts were given, or bequeathed, to the College by its earliest Fellows. The whole collection was consolidated and expanded following the College’s re-founding by Dr Caius in 1558. John Caius was an ardent humanist whose contact with Italy enabled him to acquire many examples of the new learning, including medical works in Greek and a Hebrew Bible. We now possess over 700 manuscripts, most dating from before 1500, including illuminated Books of Hours and Psalters.

Early printed books

Further important bequests came from William Branthwaite, Master 1607-1619, whose fine library on theology, philosophy and classical literature included sixty books printed before 1520 (in all we now have 100 incunabula, books printed before 1501); also James Burrough, Master 1754-1764, whose bequest of over one hundred books was revealed in our manuscript 762/374, which is a catalogue of the books in his collection, and their location in the various, and complex, shelving arrangements in his rooms, executed after his death.

We continue to expand the Lower Library collections, principally in the purchase of material relating to the history of the College, its alumni and the wider University; also histories of the city of Cambridge, the surrounding area and East Anglia. We also subscribe to the annual volumes of various learned societies.

Enquiries and visits

The Library welcomes enquiries and study visits from scholars and specialist readers who wish to examine items held by us as part of a research project. We endeavour to assist such projects in any way possible, by affording access, arranging for the supply of reproductions (principally digital photographs or microfilms) and by granting permission to publish text or photographs.

In the first instance please contact a member of library staff giving outline details of your project, of the items to which access is requested, and of any proposed publication which might ensue. We cannot guarantee that the Lower Library will be available for the consultation of special collections at all times; however, the opening hours are normally as follows:

Monday – Friday 9.30am – 12.45pm and 2.15pm – 4.45pm


Visiting Scholars may be interested to know that all the western manuscripts in the Library have been fully described in the following published catalogue: James, M.R. A descriptive catalogue of the manuscripts in the Library of Gonville and Caius College. (2 volumes and supplement) Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1907-1914.

The collection of incunabula in the Library has likewise been described in the following published catalogue: Schneider, G.A. A descriptive catalogue of the incunabula in the library of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1928.

The early printed books in the historic collections have been alphabetically listed by means of brief author-title-place-date entries in the Library’s own guard-book catalogue, which may be consulted in the Lower Library. A project is in hand to provide in-depth online catalogue records for all the Library's early-printed holdings; so far all of our incunabula and imprints bearing a date between 1501-1600 have been completed. We are currently working on those dated 1601-1650 and the online catalogue is constantly updated.

There is a recent history of the College in the following published form: Brooke, C.N.L. A history of Gonville and Caius College. Cambridge : Boydell, 1996.