Dr Emmerson's brother, David Emmerson, niece Chloe, and great-niece Genevieve view the collection

Dr Emmerson’s brother, David Emmerson, niece Chloe, and great-niece Genevieve view the collection

We are excited to announce that one of the world’s great rare book collections has been donated to the State Library.

This is the most significant donation of rare books in our 160 year history. Valued at over $5 million, the collection encompasses more than 5000 volumes from the 15th to 18th century, including political, religious, philosophical and literary works.

Rare book internal pages

The collection was amassed over 40 years by the late John Emmerson QC (1938–2014), a bibliophile and brilliant scholar who had careers as both an Oxford physicist and a Melbourne barrister. John Emmerson requested that his collection be passed on to a Melbourne library, along with a bequest of $1.3 million to help preserve, catalogue and expand the collection, and fund scholarship.

The Emmerson family generously selected the State Library. John Emmerson’s brother David explaining that ‘John wanted his collection to remain in Melbourne for the interest and enjoyment of future generations.’

Rare book internal pages

‘We are delighted for the collection to find its new home in such a vibrant institution, which is at the heart of Melbourne life. John would have loved the thought that anyone could have a chance encounter with the works through the two cases which will be permanent display. The John Emmerson fellowship will offer scholars and artists nationally and internationally an opportunity for study and inspiration through more intimate involvement with the collection.’

Rare books

Among the treasures are King Charles I’s personal copy of his father King James’ writings, a 15th century Nuremburg bible belonging to Archbishop of Canterbury William Juxon, some of the world’s earliest newspapers, and early editions of literary greats from Chaucer to Milton and Defoe.

The collection is considered to be one of the largest and most valuable of rare English printed materials surrounding the King Charles I era and 1640s English Civil War, with the only comparable collections belonging to the British Library and Oxford’s Bodleian Library.

Rare books on shelves

State Library Victoria’s History of the Book Manager Des Cowley said: ‘From treasures that belonged to King Charles himself, through to pamphlets documenting his trial and execution, through to illustrated early editions of works by John Milton and other literary greats, the collection is significant not just for the sheer quantity but the quality of the works – who they belonged to and how beautifully they’ve been maintained.’

Rare book internal pages

Professor Paul Salzman, an expert in early modern literature from La Trobe University, said the donation of the Emmerson collection would put the State Library ‘on the map’ for historians and literary scholars. ‘With this bequest, the State Library will see historians and literary scholars of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries from all over the world travelling to Melbourne to work on this collection.’

A selection of items from this incredible collection will be on display in the Library’s Mirror of the world exhibition from October 2015 onwards.

John Emmerson

The late John Emmerson QC

There has been great media coverage around this exciting news, so read on for further information here:

ABC news

The Age

The Conversation

Rare book cover


Media release: John Emmerson donation, 16 April 2015

Photography by Teagan Glenane (except photograph of John Emmerson).

This article has 3 comments

  1. david caldecoat

    I read about this donation in the Age newspaper
    my Question is are these books on display at all
    for the public to view at all????

    • Anna Metcalfe

      Yes they will. A selection of items will be on display in the Library’s Mirror of the world exhibition from October 2015 onwards.

  2. claire barton

    Can’t wait to see them

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