From its foundation in 1868, the organisation known successively as the Colonial Society, Royal Colonial Institute, Royal Empire Society and finally the Royal Commonwealth Society, amassed a library on the British Empire, the Commonwealth and member countries (together with smaller collections on the empires of rival nations). The collection now consists of over 300,000 printed items, over 600 archival collections and over 70,000 photographs 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 developments in a wide variety of fields including medicine, education and industry.

In the 1990s, the Society Collections moved to Cambridge University Library, where it is available to researchers.

Caribbean Photography Holdings

The Royal Commonwealth Society collections hold photographic collections from Britain’s former Caribbean colonies – the West Indies and British Guiana (Guyana).

The RCS collections also hold the historic photographic collections of the Church Missionary Society (CMS).


Catalogues to the majority of collections from Britain’s former Caribbean colonies are now available on line via the University’s archive portal, Janus.

Select the Advance Search option and restrict search to: Cambridge University Library: Royal Commonwealth Society Collections.  Search by name of country or region (for example West Indies), or browse lists of index terms used, including geographical terms, corporate and personal names.

A collection and file level description of the Church Missionary Society collection is available on Janus.
A more detailed, individual photograph level, catalogue is available in typescript in the Library’s Manuscripts Reading Room.

A detailed catalogue for the loose photographic print collection of the CMS is now available, including a brief description of all 2493 images.

Over 700 images have been digitised to date and may be viewed on the gallery page or on DSpace. The latter enables broad geographical browsing (such as ‘North and Central America’).

Images not listed on Janus can be searched for in the Photograph Catalogue,  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.

An index of photographers whose work is represented in the collection is available on the website.

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.


All images located on Janus and not yet digitized 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.

Opening Times and Admission
Mondays to Fridays: 09.00 – 19.15
Saturdays: 09.30 – 12.30

For detailed holiday closures, check the library’s website.

If you do not already hold a reader’s card for Cambridge University Library, please contact the Library’s Admissions Office in advance of your planned visit.  An online application form is available.