Edinburgh University Library (EUL) was founded in 1580 when the advocate Clement Litill died and bequeathed his collection of 276 volumes to the Toun and Kirk of Edinburgh. With the founding of the Tounis College in 1583 - now the University of Edinburgh - these books became the basis for its library.
With the collections significantly increased by the donations and bequests of the poet William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649), the Reverend James Nairn (1629-1678) and the eminent historian, antiquary and bibliographer David Laing (1793-1878), and from the period when EUL was a library of legal deposit, the Catalogue by the 1920s could offer works on medicine, reformation theology, Shakespeare, natural history, astronomy, mathematics, geology, and political economy.
Today, EUL builds on existing strengths as far as possible, and in recent decades it has built up a collection of books and manuscripts of modern Scottish authors which is of international importance. English pre-1800 drama, literature of the 1930s, Carlyle and Scott are other fields in which the Library has in the last fifty years been adding to its already extensive holdings of printed books. The nationally important Laing Collection is the largest single manuscript collection in EUL.
Like all large organisations, Edinburgh University has been generating records and archives from its inception in 1583. Whilst a few items date from this time the bulk of the holdings are for much later periods, especially the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The main reason for this was that the University was established and effectively controlled by Edinburgh Town Council until the Universities (Scotland) Act of 1858. Consequently, much earlier material relating to the University is to be found among the Edinburgh City Archives.
EUL houses over 32,000 volumes or boxes of manuscripts, which include sections devoted to the University archives and to the Lothian Health Services Archive.
Manuscript collections cover diverse fields of interest, and include papers, correspondence and other material on: Africa, anatomy, architects and architecture, astronomers, botanists, British Empire history, businesses as varied as textiles, publishing, shipowning, distilling and whaling, Canada, charters, Christianity, Edinburgh University and its teaching, education, eighteenth century studies, English literature, Gaelic, geology and geologists, history, India, law, logic, mathematics, medicine, medieval studies, missions and missionaries, music, natural history, natural philosophy and physics, oriental studies and languages, philosophy, politics, science, Scottish history, Scottish literature and poetry, surgeons and surgery, theology, and zoology.
These fields of interest will be represented by around 600 descriptions.