Robin Carfrae Alston (1933-2011) was educated at Rugby School, England, and the universities of British Columbia, Oxford, Toronto and London. He was a lecturer in philology at the University of New Brunswick (1958–60) and the University of Leeds (1964–76). In 1977 he became a consultant to the British Library and from 1978 to 1989 he was editor-in-chief of the Eighteenth Century Short Title Catalogue, now called the English Short Title Catalogue . He was Professor of Library Studies at the University of London from 1990 to 1998.

Among Alston’s many publications have been An Introduction to Old English (1961), A Bibliography of the English Language from the Invention of Printing to the Year 1800 (18 vols, 1965–2006), English Linguistics 1500–1800: A Collection of Texts in Facsimile (365 vols, 1967–72), ESTC: The British Library Collections (1983) and The Arrangement of Books in the British Museum Library 1843–1973 (1987). He was the editor of Studies in Early Modern English (1965–72) and the founder, principal editor and managing director of the Scolar Press.


The Alston Collection was purchased by the Library from Alston in 1974.


Printed Materials

The Alston Collection contains 1351 titles published before 1850 and about 500 post-1850 titles. The collection relates largely to philology and similar subjects, including spelling, grammar, phonetics, syntax, etymology, dialects, slang, rhetoric, elocution, belles letters, letter-writing and heraldry. There are a very large number of dictionaries and works on Anglo Saxon, Old English, Middle English, modern English, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Danish and Swedish.

Among the many rare works, some of them the only copies known to exist, are the following:

In addition to the books, there is a large quantity of xerox copies of linguistic works in European libraries collected by Alston over a period of 14 years.


The Alston Collection contains an extensive body of manuscripts and other papers relating to Alston’s bibliographical activities in the 1960s. In particular, there are drafts of An Introduction to Old English, notebooks, call slips, draft entries and proofs of the Bibliography of the English Language from the Invention of Printing to 1800, and material for a proposed ‘Dictionary of Tudor English’. In addition, there are files of correspondence with libraries and contributors and drafts of lectures and academic papers by Alston.


The pre-1850 books in the Alston Collection are kept together as a formed collection within the Rare Books Collection. They have been catalogued individually; the call numbers have the prefix RB ALS or RBq ALS. The post-1850 books, which have also been catalogued individually, were integrated in the general collection.

The manuscripts are held in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 4871.


Obituary, The Guardian online, 2 October 2011

Who’s Who, London, 2009.

First posted 2008 (revised 2019)