The collection contains Shakespeare’s First Folio and a host of intricate atlases from the Renaissance period – which the Post will return to later on in this series.
The atlases contain Civitates Orbis Terrarum – which stretches to six volumes and took 46 years to make, concluding in 1618, and was one of the most accurate and intricate collections of maps of its time, containing hand-coloured views of towns, cities and countries all over the world.
It also includes the Laferi Atlas, created in 1580, a unique collection of maps made in Italy in the 16th century.
Among the other parts of the collection which draw in visitors is a copy of Paradise Lost with a special binding from 1973 to represent the new Birmingham Central Library of the day.
A new book will be bound in white leather and feature an image of the outside of the new Library of Birmingham to commemorate the move and, after a staff vote, an Aesop’s Fables from 1687 has been chosen to be re-bound.
The collection also includes a Map of Fairyland by Bernard Sleigh in 1918 – another example of the arts and crafts movement in reaction to the industrial revolution. Sleigh studied at the Birmingham School of Art and was a member of the Birmingham Guild of Handicraft.
Mr Woodward said the array of priceless books and manuscripts at the library were vital to ensure that they remain available for future generations – and only public-funded bodies can offer that degree of certainty.
He said: “If ever a Laferi Atlas or something like that came up on the market it would be ripped up and sold, because it would be more valuable that way, which is a shame because the public would never have access to them again.
“That is why it is important for these items to be in public ownership – that temptation to rip them up would always be there.”
He added: “We have got one of the largest collections of early and fine books anywhere in the world. There is a public library in Dublin which has something like 24,000 but that is about it.
“One of the challenges we have got is to make them more well-known, and with the move there will be better access through the website.”
* Man who had a way with words
The early and fine printing collection contains some of the work of a Midland typographer whose legacy can be seen on almost every computer screen in the world.
John Baskerville, from Wolverley in Worcestershire, was responsible for significant innovations in printing, paper and ink production in the 18th century.
He was among the first people to experiment with the ways that letters can be arranged, and his work paved the way for the Times New Roman font that is standard fare on word processors across the world.
The collection at the library contains a bible created by Baskerville, donated in 1932 by a Mrs Smythe, which is recognised as some of his best work – somewhat ironically considering he was an atheist.
Librarian Paul Woodward said while his name is well known after Birmingham’s civic centre was renamed Baskerville House in his honour, Baskerville’s contribution to printing and typesetting is under-estimated.
He said: “He was commissioned by Cambridge University to make bibles because of his reputation as a printer.
“The typeface was the forerunner to Times Roman – and the forerunner to modern type.
“I think Baskerville is quite a neglected figure, and quite undeservedly when you look at what he did in printing.”
The Baskerville bible, made from the same metal used in bullets, helped Baskerville to spread his influence internationally.
His typefaces were greatly admired by Benjamin Franklin, a printer and fellow member of the Royal Society of Arts, who took the designs back to the newly-created United States, where they were adopted for most federal government publishing.
Baskerville originally made his fortune in Japanning – the European imitation of Asian lacquerwork.
A sculpture of the Baskerville typeface by local artist David Patten stands outside the main entrance to Baskerville House in Centenary Square.
It has been suggested that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who once lived in Birmingham, may have borrowed Baskerville’s surname for one of his Sherlock Holmes stories, The Hound of the Baskervilles.