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Manuscripts, Archives and Photographs of the Royal Commonwealth Society

RCMS 352/05 Indian mica painting of a Hujam or Barber

Picture credit: Hujam or Barber, painted on mica in India c. 1869 (RCMS 352_5)


The RCS Library contains many special collections and archives, and the majority have been re-catalogued (online) since the Library moved to Cambridge in 1993.  Work is on-going to sort, research, conserve and catalogue the remainder, plus additional collections which have been acquired subsequently, and to share them online. 

Keep abreast of new accessions, catalogues, digitised collections, projects and exhibitions by reading our regular blog-posts

Access these special collections by the Remote access & catalogues link.

Some collection highlights

This collection is composed of the institutional records of the society. Major sections relate to its organisation and administration, charters and rules, membership, the construction and renovation of its headquarters in London, and the extension of branches within the United Kingdom and throughout the British Empire and Commonwealth. The archives also document the society's many cultural, educational and philanthropic initiatives, often undertaken as collaborative projects with other societies interested in Imperial and Commonwealth affairs. It includes:

Books collected by Richard Bedford Bennett, Vice-President of the Royal Empire Society (1930-1947) and Prime Minister of Canada, 1930-1935.

  • Voices of civilian internment (WWII Singapore) - records from the British Association of Malaysia and Singapore archives offering perhaps the most complete record from a Far East civilian internment camp to survive from WWII.  Thanks to a Wellcome Trust Research Resources Award, these records have been conserved and digitised, and are freely available to explore on Cambridge Digital Library.

Links to catalogues of the full collection: 

You can read a blogpost about the Caribbean photograph collections we have digitised and made freely available on Cambridge Digital Library.

The CMS archives are held at the University of Birmingham, and do not form part of the RCS collections.

A collection of cinefilms, mostly taken by Sir Frederick Tymms, which have been digitised and may be viewed online

  • Cobham collection on Cyprus 

Books, pamphlets, periodicals, maps and photographs of Cyprus (or published in Cyprus), which were collected by Claude Delaval Cobham (1842-1915), Commissioner of Larnaca, Cyprus, 1879-1907.  Books, pamphlets, maps and periodicals in this collection have been catalogued on iDiscover; the photographs on ArchiveSearch.  The collection has also been microfilmed for preservation reasons.  Photographs in the Cobham collection include those by John Thomson, historic sites and antiquities and a collection of postcards.

Photographs taken (or collected) by Alfred Hugh Fisher (1867-1945) for the Visual Instruction Committee of the Colonial Office (Great Britain), 1907-1910.

  • Malcolm John MacDonald (1901-1981), politican and diplomat, photos and papers.

The University of Durham holds the majority of Malcolm MacDonald's papers.

The collections of the Royal Commonwealth Society include over 2213 metres of official publications in both serial and monograph format. These publications date from the mid 19th century to the end of British involvement and sometimes beyond. They include many rare and internationally significant reports. Colonial Blue Books, Staff lists and official publications from Malaysia, Hong Kong, the West Indies, and parts of Africa, have been catalogued on the University's online catalogue, iDiscover.  Learn more about the content of Colonial Blue Books in 'Colonial Blue Books: a major resource in the Royal Commonwealth Society Library'

  • Periodicals

The RCS library contains a large and interdisciplinary collection of periodicals from around the Commonwealth.  Titles are catalogued in iDiscover, as well as in the RCS card catalogue. Periodical titles are often abbreviated and a very useful spreadsheet listing abbreviations commonly used, together with their classmarks and holdings has been created.

  • Photograph collection

The Royal Commonwealth Society Photograph Collection contains over 150,000 images from all over the world. Dating from the mid-1850s to the mid-1980s the photographs provide insight into the history of the Commonwealth, documenting a wide variety of fields including the natural environment, buildings, events, transport and infrastructure, health and medicine, culture and education, politics and industry.

Many images have been digitised and may be viewed on Cambridge Digital Library; others on Apollo. The collection contains some particularly fine photographic panoramas.

The RCS collections contain photographs and archival papers relating to the Arctic and Antarctic, in particular to the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. Do also read our blogpost about photographs from the Falkland Islands and South Georgia which we have digitised and are freely available on Cambridge Digital Library.


Preserving the collections

Help us preserve the RCS collections. Please handle original photographs, art work and manuscripts with special care; in particular,

  • the print surface of photographs should not be touched
  • books and other objects should not be placed on top of manuscripts, photographs, or indeed any archival material
  • do not make tracings from photographs or write on paper placed over them
  • please do not remove prints from protective sleeves without the permission of a member of staff.
  • please replace batches of prints in their correct numerical sequence after use.
  • please report any damage you discover

Copying photographs, manuscripts, or archives

Researchers may take photographs themselves of materials they consult in the Manuscripts Reading Room, Munby Rare Books Room and Map Room for non-commercial research and private study only.  General photography (e.g. of people, locations, reading rooms) is not permitted.

To ensure the preservation of these unique and valuable collections, all photography is at the discretion of library staff.


Whilst the University owns the physical collections, it does not necessarily own the copyright in them. It is the responsibility of the researcher to pursue and obtain copyright clearance from the copyright holder before reproduction of any kind may take place.  Biographical details of photographers and their studios are given in the Photograph Catalogues and in the Photographers Index. These should be used to help trace copyright owners:

Please refer to the Library’s Digital Content Unit for further advice on copyright. Email:

Ordering copies

Please use the online order form on the Digital Content Unit webpages:

Further information and advice on prices is available on the Digital Content Unit webpages:

Image reproduction rights

Images of works held by the library and those created by its Digital Content Unit are subject to copyright. The purchase of an image from the library does not confer the right to reproduce it in a print or electronic publication, either commercial or non-profit making. You must first obtain permission which will normally be granted on acceptance of licence terms and payment of the appropriate fees. Please refer to:

Picture research

Please note that the Library is unable to provide a photographic or picture research service.


The Royal Commonwealth Society Library is not actively collecting new archival collections, photographs or manuscripts. However, donations of small collections which complement its existing collections will be considered. Potential donors should contact the Smuts Librarian with details of their collection including, in the case of photograph collections, approximately how many images, whether or not they are captioned, geographical regions covered, dates, and, where known, the names of photographers or collectors. Consideration will be given to the size and condition of the collection, as well as its subject content and provenance. If the Library feels unable to accept a collection, advice about alternative repositories will be given.

Contact us

Please address enquiries about RCS holdings to:

RCS Curator
Cambridge University Library
West Road


Please note that we are unable to provide valuations.  We recommend you contact a specialist antiquarian bookseller or auction house.