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Giant ant hills in Bechuanaland, 1868 by A.A. Anderson (RCMS 191.62)

Picture credit: Giant ant hills in Bechuanaland, 1868 by A.A. Anderson (RCMS 191.62)

Finding published information

How do I know whether the RCS library holds published information on a particular subject or place?

First search iDiscover

Nearly 66,000 items from the RCS library have been recatalogued online.These include rare books and bound pamphlets, special collections, such as the Cobham collection on Cyprus, colonial and Commonwealth periodical holdings, 'Blue books', official publications from Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, the West Indies and many parts of Africa, yearbooks, commercial directories, staff and civil lists, bibliographies, monographs on Africa, Canada and Cyprus, and Commonwealth fiction and poetry.

For further guidance on locating official publications, click here.

However, only 25% of the RCS published collections are currently catalogued online. Should you fail to locate an item in our online catalogues, do look in the RCS Card Catalogue which is located in the Rare Books Room, behind the glass wall.

Card Catalogue

This includes entries for monographs, pamphlets and journal articles, official publications, directories and yearbooks, periodicals and annual reports across the Commonwealth and colonial territories. 

The card catalogue includes an author catalogue, a biographical catalogue, a periodical titles catalogue, a catalogue of society publications and a subject catalogue; the latter sub-divided firstly by geographical region and then by subject chronologically. It is a wonderful tool for seeing what has been published on a particular topic over time.

A very useful guide to abbreviations of periodical titles in the RCS collection may be found here, along with classmarks and holdings.

Guides in the Blue Ring File (located on the low shelf beside the catalogue) give more information about using the catalogue, including a list of the subject headings and a guide to standard abbreviations.

The card catalogue includes items re-catalogued on the computer catalogue. These items have been assigned unique shelf marks, making fetching much quicker. Please check the computer catalogue for these new shelf marks.

Finding Images

If you are looking for images (digital images, photographic prints or slides), first browse or search Cambridge Digital Library.  The RCS has images in three sections:  RCS collections, Voices of civilian internment (WWII Singapore), and Curious objects.  Do also look at the RCS Slide Show,  the RCS Online Galleries, and the RCS cinefilms to see what has already been digitised.  Digital images may also be located via Apollo where you can search by country name.  Over 4000 images from the RCS collections are currently accessible online - images from all over the Commonwealth and beyond.

If you fail to find a relevant image, search the RCS archive catalogues (Janus) online.  Using the Advance Search option enables you to search just the RCS collections (use Restrict search to: Cambridge University Library: Royal Commonwealth Society Collections) and try combining search terms, e.g. Australia and Emigration.  Alternatively, you can browse lists of index terms used, including geographical terms, corporate and personal names.

Images located on Janus may be viewed in the Manuscripts Room, on completion of an Order Form. In the box marked ‘classmark or other reference’, please use the classmark information listed under ‘Access and Use’ on Janus – e.g. Y30111FFF or QM 6. It is recommended that you also describe the item briefly e.g. School Empire Tours Record, or Royal Tour of India 1905-1906.  You may also email the Manuscripts Room in advance of a planned visit on

If you fail to find a suitable image in Janus, the third place to search is the Photograph Catalogue . This is located in the Manuscripts Reading Room.  The catalogue consists of a series of spring-back folders, containing detailed descriptions of collections and individual photographs. The first folder explains the layout of the catalogue, which is organised primarily by country with separate volumes for special named collections. To determine which folders contain catalogues to which country, refer to the Royal Commonwealth Society Country Classification Guide.  Classmarks comprise the prefix Y30 followed by the country classification – e.g. Y3022 refers to photographs of India; Y307 photographs of the West Indies.

For an index to photographers whose work is represented in the collection, see the RCS Photographers Index.

There is also an incomplete card index of individuals photographed, known as the RCS Portrait Index, located in six wooden catalogue drawers on a windowsill in the Manuscripts Room.

Finding archival material – correspondence, manuscripts, pictures, family papers etc.

Use Janus for your initial search.  Select the Advanced search option and restrict your search to: Cambridge University Library: Royal Commonwealth Society Collections.  Alternatively, you can browse the RCS catalogue or lists of index terms e.g. geographical terms, corporate and personal names.  Janus enables you to locate relevant material not only in the RCS collections, but also in other Cambridge archives.

If, however, you fail to find relevant archival material on Janus, refer secondly to:

The manuscript catalogue of the library of the RoyalCommonwealth Society, edited by Donald H. Simpson. London: Mansell, 1975. ISBN 0720104483

A copy of this published catalogue is kept in the Manuscripts Reading Room behind the Superintendent’s Desk.

Archival material may be viewed in the Manuscripts Room, on completion of an Order Form. In the box marked ‘classmark or other reference’, please use the classmark information listed under ‘Access and Use’ on Janus – e.g. RCMS 108/2 It is recommended that you also describe the item briefly e.g. Personal and family papers of Lillian Newton: Memoirs and anecdotes.

Further information about using the RCS special collections is available on the Collections page.

Further information on the RCS Photograph Project is available at

Contact us

Please address enquiries about RCS holdings to:

Rachel Rowe, Smuts Librarian for South Asian and Commonwealth Studies
Cambridge University Library
West Road


Please note the Librarian is part-time and usually works at the University Library on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Rachel may be reached by phone on Wednesdays and Thursdays on +44(0)1223 333146, but it is preferable to email details of your enquiry.

If your enquiry concerns a valuation, please note that we are unable to provide valuations.  We recommend you contact a specialist antiquarian bookseller or auction house.