From Medieval manuscripts to the Brunel bridge construction – take a virtual tour of the Special Collections

The University of Bristol Special Collections team has been hard at work to make finding items in the collection and researching them easier.

The collections, which make up the Cultural Collections together with the Theatre Collection, holds more than 5km of books, archives, photographs, and artefacts dating from the eleventh to the twenty-first century.

A view of Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol, from St Vincent’s Rocks, showing the piers under construction. One of many images held as part of Special Collections at the University of Bristol.

The new University Library building, proposals for which are currently submitted to Bristol City Council for planning consent, will for the first time bring both collections together in one, more accessible, space.

Here are some top tips for accessing the collections:

  • Use the library catalogue to find out about our book holdings. Some may only be for University of Bristol people, but there is a wide variety of material available for all.
  • Take a digital tour of our Online Archive Catalogue, where you’ll find a wealth of digitised materials you can investigate.
  • Remember if you need advice, or want to find out more, do email the team at and we will try and help.

For some inspiration of the kinds of things you might find, visit the latest Special Collections blog.

A new University Library; reaching another milestone, what’s exciting about this, and sharing your thoughts

February has seen us reach a key milestone in submitting a planning application for our new University Library and improvements to the public spaces around the site. Following a period of consultation with students, staff and the wider local community, we have submitted the planning application to Bristol City Council. The new building will feature purpose-built exhibition galleries, reading rooms, event spaces, and a new home for the Centre for Cultural Collections, making them accessible to all.

The Centre for Cultural Collections is made up of the Theatre Collection, which is an accredited museum and has recently been awarded Designated status by Arts Council England; and Special Collections, which is a nationally important collection of rare books and archives with particular strengths in politics and campaigning, literature and publishing, and science and medicine.

The collections are tangible reminders of the past, and bear witness to events that have helped shape our communities into what they are today. The items in the collections are an invaluable research resource and are also a source of inspiration for new work and initiatives across Bristol and beyond. Items held by the Theatre Collection include treasures such as autographed gloves worn by Sir Laurence Olivier in ‘The Entertainer,’ designs by renowned designer Oliver Messel, as well as personal effects, photographs, posters, props, scripts, and much more. Special Collection materials include an annotated copy of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover used by the judge in the landmark 1960 obscenity trial and a silver trowel used by Winston Churchill to lay the foundation stone of the Engineering building at the University of Bristol, where he was Chancellor from 1929-65.

Gloves worn by Sir Laurence Olivier in his comeback performance of ‘The Entertainer’ in 1960. Signed for his costume designer and then gifted to the University of Bristol Theatre Collection.
The handbag of Vivien Leigh, Sir Laurence Olivier’s long term wife as gifted to the University of Bristol Theatre Collection.
Sir Lawrence Byrne’s copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover with associated notes – University of Bristol Library, Special Collections

We are very keen to receive your comments on plans for this flagship new building, external public realm, the services we’d like to provide from it, and the proposals for the external public spaces, including a new civic square. You can share your thoughts via the Bristol City Council website or via

New University Library, view from Royal Fort Gardens looking north.
Copyright HawkinsBrown & Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects.
Planned external Public Realm. Copyright HawkinsBrown & Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects.