There are examples of written English both published and unpublished, formal and informal, dating from the Middle Ages to the present. These sources represent a wide range of writers in terms of gender, age, social class, race and nationality. The collections lend themselves to the study of the historical development of the English language and language change, historical linguistics, sociolinguistics and corpus linguistics.
This guide will identify collection strengths and help you access the most relevant material.
The John Rylands Research Institute and Library is home to an outstanding and diverse collection of manuscripts written in Middle English, providing an opportunity to study the language of this period using a range of primary sources. Dating from the mid 14thcentury to the beginning of the 16th, our 41 Middle English manuscripts include literary texts, recipe books, devotional works, legal texts, and medical treatises. You can access high quality digital images of all of these via Luna.
Complementing the manuscripts is an equally impressive collection of pre 1500 printed books in English, including over 60 books published by William Caxton. This constitutes the second largest collection of Caxton editions in the world; his books were highly influential in establishing the south eastern regional vernacular as the national standard
Special Collections holds books in English published from the 1470s to the present day, embracing every subject area.
Of particular relevance are grammars, letter writing manuals, and a particularly good representation of dictionaries. The most important of these is the Samuel Johnson Collection which contains many editions of his famous Dictionary of the English Language, including the 1747 Plan in which he announced his intentions, and the first edition of the Dictionary itself (1755).
There is also a copy of the fourth edition (1773), containing over 250 amendments in Johnson’s own hand, which were incorporated into later editions.
The Library’s archive holdings contain documents written in English dating from the late medieval period to the present. These provide infinite examples of informal, unpublished language for analytical study, and particularly lend themselves to quantitative corpus based approaches.
Archives include correspondence from the early modern to the contemporary periods (including email in some of our recent archives), as well as diaries, travel journals, commonplace books and more. The family and estate collections are of particular value, and include women’s as well as men’s correspondence. Although their focus tends to be on the elite, other social classes are represented in the form of tradesmen, estate employees, tenants, and recipients of charity.
Collections like the Thrale-Piozzi Manuscripts and Mary Hamilton Papers provide an outstanding picture of 18th century epistolary culture, and the Hamilton Papers are already being used as part of a transliteration project.
Regional dialect, notably that of Lancashire, is represented in both printed and manuscript collections. Relevant dialect works include glossaries (such as that of Samuel Bamford, published in 1843), poetry (from works by Tim Bobbin in the 18thcentury to Frederick Rose, aka Mick O’Pleasington, in the 20th), ballads and songs, and Biblical texts.
The Library holds many examples of American English in printed form, including early American editions of works on theology, medicine and politics. The Bible Collection contains scripture translated into Native American languages from the 17th century onwards, alongside other Bibles in roughly 400 different languages and dialects produced over a period of five centuries.
More widely the Library holds material in many different languages covering 4,000 years including all major European and Middle Eastern languages, as well as many Far Eastern. The foreign languages for which there are dictionaries or grammars (from different periods, in both manuscript and print form) are as varied as Chinese, Esperanto, Irish, Japanese, Persian, Syriac, Tamil, and Turkish.
The University of Manchester Library holds one of the finest collections of rare books, manuscripts, archives and visual collections in the world. These collections are mainly concentrated in the magnificent building on Deansgate, The John Rylands Research Institute and Library, in the centre of Manchester. They are also housed in the Main Library on the University campus and at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre, in Manchester Central Library. This resource introduces the different types of materials found in Special Collections and explains how they can be used to support your studies. For general tips on accessing digital and physical collections and visiting our reading room please look at our other Medium resources.
You are welcome to make use of Special Collections in your learning and research.
Due to the special nature of the material, we provide access in a controlled environment and there are some restrictions on use and access, particularly for fragile material or modern archives which may contain sensitive data.
Please read our guidance pages on the web for details.