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Special Collections: Historical Textbooks

History of Education Sources

About the Collection


This is a large collection of British school textbooks, covering all educational levels, from nursery to sixth form. It covers all aspects of the curriculum, with particular strengths in history and science.

Most material dates from the late nineteenth century onwards, with strong holdings from 1920-1960.

The collection is still growing, with newer material relegated from the library's current holdings, and occasional accessions of older material where appropriate.

Size: c.88,000 items

Type/format: Books

Dates: c.1890 onwards

Accrual policy: Open. Materials must be published in Britain, and intended for school use.

Location:  Bedford Way

Reference only. By prior arrangement with the Special Collections Librarian. Contact the Library Enquiry Desk in the first instance. Materials must be requested in advance, and can take up to a week to retrieve.

The collection is largely now available to search on the online Library Catalogue. However the catalogue entries are brief and do not contain chapter headings.  This is problematic for textbooks as most textbooks tend to have very general titles.  For instructions on how to search for textbooks see

Cataloguing the textbooks collection

In 2012, the Newsam Library were successful in obtaining funds from JISC (Joint Informaiton Systems Countil) to catalogue some of the historic textbooks collection.  We have chosen to catalogue the pre-1950s science and technology and history textbooks from this collection.  Information on this project and regular updates are available on Newsam News and on the project's blog.

Presentation on Research & the Historical Textbooks Collection at the IOE

Why is textbook research important?

School textbooks are often discarded as they are thought to have little intrinsic value or academic worth but they are a fascinating resource for historians.  For the historian of education, textbooks are useful sources of information on the development of the school curriculum, especially before the introduction of the National Curriculum. They also provide evidence of changing ideas on teaching methods and assessment. School books, and especially geography books, also provide much interesting evidence of other aspects of everyday life in past eras. In addition to the ‘factual’ presentation of contemporary life in text and illustrations, they often reveal prevailing attitudes. Their presentation of other races and cultures, for instance, or of the British Empire, demonstrates the accepted view of the establishment at the time of their publication.


Some Useful Links:

LISE Co-operative for the Storage of Obsolescent Textbooks

The LISE (Libraries of Institutes and Schools of Education) was a co-operation to store obsolesent textbooks.  Each member library collected and stored materials for a subject.  The institute/school and subject lists are attached below. 

The University of London's main library, Senate House, also holds historic textbooks in the Quick Memorial Library Collection.