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Archives and Special Collections: Music, Literature and the Arts: Literature

Our collections


Although most of our medieval manuscripts are written in Latin, a small number of literary works are in English and French, such as the autograph manuscript by Thomas Hoccleve (DUL MS Cosin V.3.9), a fifteenth-century French version of John Mandeville's travels (DUL MS Cosin V.1.10), and a fifteenth-century copy of John Mirk's Festial (DUL MS Cosin V.3.5). Please note that our medieval manuscripts have not been catalogued to a consistent format and that some catalogue entries are incomplete.

Supported by an excellent history of the book reference library on open shelves in the Barker Research Library, our manuscript collections, along with those at the Cathedral Library and Ushaw College, offer a rich and fascinating research resource. You can find out more about the manuscripts and about those that have been digitised through the Durham Priory Project in the guides listed on this page under 'Where to start'.

We have some nineteenth-century literary manuscripts, such as examples of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry (DUL Add. Mss 157-162), correspondence of Gerald Manley Hopkins (DUL ABL 181-202) and a manuscript by Rudyard Kipling (DUL Add. Ms. 860). The Abbott Literary Manuscripts archive reflects the interests of the scholar and poet Claude Colleer Abbott (1889-1971), focusing on the Pre-Raphaelites and George Darley (1795- 1846) in particular.

Printed collections

Our early printed book collections contain many examples of English literature written and published before 1900. From early printed editions of Geoffrey Chaucer's and John Gower's works to first editions of Jane Austen's Emma and Pride and prejudice,  poetry by the Brontë sisters under their pseudonyms, and Charles Dickens, with much in between (including the now infamous Shakespeare First Folio), our collections show how fictional works were circulated and published. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century are quite well represented with a complete run of the Yellow Book, works by Oscar Wilde, including the first version of The picture of Dorian Gray (1890) from Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, and poetical works by William Butler Yeats among others.

Early modern French and Italian literature is also quite well represented in our collections. The libraries of female Catholic communities in exile are a good resource for devotional works in French, whilst at Ushaw College the library of the former English College at Lisbon contains a number of works in Portuguese and Spanish.

By studying inscriptions and other forms of ownership, we can learn from these books about who owned them and sometimes how they were read. A good number of books is still bound in original bindings. More information about studying early printed books can be found in our guide on Rare and Early Printed Books.

The printed collections can be searched via Discover.



The twentieth-century literary collections are based on figures from English-speaking countries. The collections are mostly archival (papers and manuscripts) with some printed material from their working libraries. The main named collections are those of Laurens van der Post (1906-1996); William Plomer (1903-1973); Ingaret Giffard (1902-1997); Michael Standen (1937-2008); and the publisher Rupert Hart-Davies (1907-1999). Our collection of private press publications, donated by David J. Hall, is also a great resource for literary studies.

In addition to these named collections, our general printed collection also contains a number of fictional works by twentieth-century authors. Use Discover to explore what we have.

Opening lines of George Darley's poem The sorrow of hope.

Although we have a good range of fiction in among our general book collection, it is poetry where we have a great selection of material. Most notably among these are the archives of Basil Bunting (1900-1985), consisting of books, papers, recordings and films; and Keith Armstrong (1946-), consisting of books, ephemera, and recordings. The poet Anne Stevenson (1933-2020) donated to us her working library of poetry, fiction and non-fiction.

In addition, we have material associated with Norman Hidden(1913-2006), consisting of books, papers, recordings; Katrina Porteous (1960-), books and recordings; and the papers of Thomas Blackburn (1916-1977). Papers and photos of readings by contemporary poets in Durham can be found in the Colpitts poetry archive.

Archival and printed material relating to drama - from scripts to playbills - can be found across a number of collections. The University Archive is a rich resource for student performances and new material is added regularly. Plays are also found among the Durham University Library Additional Manuscripts. Our Local Collection contains information about dramatic performances in and around Durham, especially in the local newspapers on microfilm.

The Local Collection on open access in PGL in the Barker Research Library contains information on dramatic performances in and around Durham in advertisements, reports and reviews, and especially the local newspapers, held on microfilm. The papers of the Spennymoor Settlement give an insight into the cultural activities developed there in the early twentieth century, including in the Everyman Theatre and Art Gallery, which opened in 1939.

Availability online (digital images)

Some of this material has been digitised, but for most collections only the catalogues are currently available online.

If you would like to purchase digital copies of specific items from any of our collections that have not been digitised, please get in touch.

If you are a member of teaching staff at Durham University and would like to use material from Archives and Special Collections within your lectures or seminars, we may be able to scan or photograph items for this purpose.  Please contact us as early as possible with any teaching digitisation requests.

See also our guide to Digitised Collections Online for further information on our digital resources.

Access to original sources

The collections mentioned above are located at Palace Green Library.  Our current opening hours are as follows, but see also below.

  • Monday to Friday: 10am to 4:30pm
  • Saturday: closed
  • Sunday: closed

For further information on visiting to use the collections, please use our enquiry form.

See separate Libraries and Site Information guide for further information on Palace Green Library.

Appointments are strongly recommended for all visits, please use the enquiry form to book.  Please give three working days notice when possible and include a full list of document references or shelfmarks so that we can best enable your research access.

Where to start