Friday, 5 June 2009

New Project to Catalogue Cambridge University Library’s Incunabula

by Kathryn Hadley

Cambridge University announced, today, the beginning of a new project to catalogue, for the first time, the University Library’s celebrated collection of incunabula, pre-1501 printed books. The term incunabula literally means swaddling-clothes, or cradle, in Latin and was adopted to describe a book printed at an early date, in the first infancy of printing.

Very few records of the Library’s 4,650 treasures are currently in its online catalogue. Records will begin to be catalogued this autumn and, over the next five years, the University Library will produce detailed records for each item, which will be accessible through its Newton Universal Catalogue.

The Library’s incunabula collection notably includes the first printed edition of Homer’s works, produced in Florence in 1488; a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed in Europe from moveable metal type and produced in Mainz in approximately 1455; the first book to contain italic type, printed by Aldus Manutius in Venice in 1500; and several editions of William Caxton, who first introduced the printing press into England in 1476.

Medieval historian and author Professor Miri Rubin, of Queen Mary, University of London, explained the significance of the collection:

‘These earliest printed books were the product of medieval craftsmanship, but they also reflect new - often humanist - trends in learning and reading. Religion and politics, poetry and science are all to be found in these early books. Hence the project will have a major impact by offering new opportunities for scholars and others.’

Some of the books from the collection are decorated with elaborate illustrations, such as the illuminated copy of Dio Chrysostomus, De regno, published in Venice in 1471, and the hand-coloured copy of Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle (Nuremberg, 1493), which illustrates the history of the world up to 1492, in 1,809 woodcuts. Another rare book in the collection is a Book of Hours, printed on vellum by Caxton’s successor, Wynkyn de Worde, which is inscribed by Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s future wife, and her family.

One of the most important gifts to the Library was a collection of 340 books donated by Arthur Young, a retired lawyer and member of Trinity College. He allegedly arrived at the Library in a taxi, one morning in the 1930s, with the books, which he claimed included an old bible. The said bible was a copy of the Gutenberg Bible.

Although the project does not involve a complete page-by-page digitisation of the Library’s incunabula, the Gutenberg Bible has been fully digitalised and is available online


- Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed in Europe from moveable metal type (Mainz, c. 1455)
- Illuminated copy of Dio Chrysostomus, De regno (Venice, 1471)


Drastic Plastic said...

How nice for them. Lots of taxpayer money so they can catalogue their collection -- which is already catalogued. But... how is this of benefit to those of us who pay for this money? When will these books come online?

History Today magazine said...

According to the University's communications officer, the current funding only covers the cataloguing of the archive. They do plan, however, to eventually digitise the archives at some point in the future, although it is very unclear as to when this will happen...

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

The money is coming from the Mellon Foundation, not the taxpayer. See

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