HISTORY OF THE BOOK
Edited by Emma-Louise Hill and Jordan Knowles (UEA). Produced in conjunction with Bookscapes & funded by CHASE DTP.
In this section, we list resources related to the study of the printed book. In a tradition of scholarship, the 'coming of the book' occurred with the introduction of printing into the West in the mid-fifteenth century. Of course, 'the book', as a volume of leaves with written text placed within a binding, had long existed in later classical and medieval culture, and so you will find useful material on our Manuscript Studies page.
Like codicology and palaeography, there is a tradition of study of the technical details of the physical book - bibliography - and that tradition underpins the development in the second half of the twentieth century of 'book history'. If, then, this use of bibliographical skills to ask wider historical questions presents itself as a young(ish) sub-discipline, it is also one undergoing the challenge of redefining itself. An important recent development has been to engage with the rich cultures of written communication that existed beyond the West by extending the term 'book' to cover these artefacts.
The best general introduction to this subject is Sarah Werner’s Studying Early Printed Books 1450–1800: A Practical Guide (Oxford, 2019) and the author provides an associated freely-available website. She also blogs (as Wynken de Worde) on relevant topics. The blog has its own useful list of resources which is worth consulting.
What is the History of the Book? - this essay by Roger Darnton serves as a general introduction to the field, in which he elaborates on his famous ‘Communications Circuit’, a proposed framework for understanding the cycle of a book from author to reader. You can listen to an interview with Darnton on 'Why Book History is so Exciting' in this episode of The Biblio File, a leading podcast on the book and book culture.
Arch Book - a freely available series of essays relating to the history of the book, with a particular emphasis on book design. The website also contains a glossary of bibliographic terms.
John Carter, ABC for Book Collectors (Oak Knoll Press, 1995) - a useful glossary of terms that you will encounter in discussions of books and the parts that make them.
For further online resources beyond those listed below, see Folgerpedia.
Universal Short Title Catalogue (USTC) - a digital bibliography of Early Modern print culture, an attempt to bring together information on all books published in Europe between the invention of printing and the end of the sixteenth century.
English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) – the standard catalogue, developed by the British Library, for books printed in Britain (or abroad, but in English) between 1473-1800. Many of the texts included here up to 1700 can also be found on Early English Books Online (EEBO).
CERL – Heritage of the Printed Book Database - the HPB Database (previously called the Hand Press Book Database) is a collection of files of catalogue records from major European and North American research libraries covering items of European printing of the hand-press period (c.1455-c.1830).
Eighteenth Century Book Tracker - an index which aims to help locate freely available digital copies of 18th century books on general digital repositories.
Bibliopolis - a digital resource to assist with researching the history of the printed book in the Netherlands.
Conventionally, books printed from the invention of moveable type up to the end of the year 1500 are known as incunabula or incunables, from the Latin incunabula meaning swaddling-clothes or the things of childhood.
Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (known as ISTC) - the now-standard recording of every incunable (with summary listing of witnesses), developed by the British Library. This provides links to:
Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke - this German catalogue, developing out of the work of the pioneering incunabulist, Ludwig Hain, provides descriptions of each book which are still summary but give more attention to their physical structure.
Bod-Inc Online - the digital version of the catalogue of incunables in Oxford's Bodleian (Oxford, 2005), this is a model of the recent tradition of copy-specific cataloguing, that is studying each copy with attention to their provenance. This is now being incorporated into and augmented by the Text-Inc database, which is part of the next resource listed.
15C Book Trade - this Oxford-based project provides a wealth of material on the evolution of the book as a marketable object in the first decades of print. It links to several databases including the Material Evidence in Incunabula, hosted (like ISTC) by the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL for short).
Gutenberg Bible - the British Library provides a good introduction to this most famous of the earliest incunables, putting side-by-side a copy printed on paper with one printed on parchment. See also the spreadsheet of digitised copy-specific cataloguing, detailing the particular features of individual copies, including the copies compiled by Yale's Beinecke Library.
Atlas of Early Printing - an interactive map that intends to show the development of early printing across different regions of Europe. The website also contains links to a number of lectures and radio programmes relating to the broader field of the history of incunabula itself, as well as to a helpful series of videos demonstrating the printing process using a 17th century press and materials.
CERL – Material Evidence in Incunabula - a database specifically designed to record and search the material evidence (or copy specific, post-production evidence and provenance information) of 15th-century printed books: ownership, decoration, binding, manuscript annotations, stamps, prices, etc.
For a more lighthearted resource, watch The Machine That Made Us – a BBC documentary, presented by Stephen Fry, which attempts to construct an approximation of the original Gutenberg printing press. See also the episode of BBC Radio 4's In Our Time on Caxton and the Printing Press, featuring MEMS' own David Rundle.
Timothy Barrett; European Papermaking Techniques 1300-1800 - excellent introductory essay on how paper was made.
Warwick University's Centre for the Study of The Renaissance provides a short introduction to the study of watermarks as a means of dating paper, giving a brief, helpful account of the challenges of using online databases to do so. The website also contains links to a number of these databases, including:
Briquet Online - a digital catalogue drawn from Charles-Moïse Briquet’s seminal four-volume printing of watermarks from 1282-1600.
The Thomas L. Gravell Watermark Archive - photographic reproductions of over 7,000 watermarks in paper made between 1400 and 1835 available as a searchable online electronic database.
The Correctors - an essay by Anthony Grafton on one of the main-stays of the early modern printing house, to whet your appetite for his Inky Fingers (Cambridge MA, 2020).
Early Modern Frisket Sheets - some printed books included some colour: how did they achieve that? The sheet has to go through the press twice and, on the second occasion, most of it will need to be covered to avoid the second ink overlaying the first. So, there will need to be a mask (with little rectangles cut out where the type was to appear) and, in early printing practices, that was done with a piece of parchment or paper, known as frisket sheets. Elizabeth Savage has reconstructed the practice and introduces it here, linking to a list of known examples. Separately, she discusses one interesting case.
RBS presents Presswork: A Documentary - short documentary chronicling the Rare Book School (RBS) commissioning of an eighteenth-century style wooden rolling press.
Woodcuts and Engravings
British Printed Images to 1700 (bpi1700) - a digital library of prints and book illustrations from early modern Britain.
Folger British Book Illustrations Collection - features a range of early modern printed illustrations from their collections.
Emblematica Online - hosted by the University of Illinois, this site provides a useful introduction to the study of Emblems as well as a database of printed emblems from the 16th-19th centuries.
(see also Manuscript Studies)
Roberts and Etherington, Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books: A Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology (Library of Congress, 1981).
British Library Database of Bookbindings - a finding aid which aims to provide information and images of selected bindings of books printed in Western Europe from the fifteenth century to date.
Bookbindings on Incunables – a database developed by Princeton University of 15th century bindings in North American collections.
Folger Bindings Image Collection – part of the Folger Library Digital Imagine Collection, providing digital images of bindings from the library’s collection, with a short description of their country of origin, period, and decorative style.
Medieval Manuscript Fragments – part of UCL’s digital collection, containing manuscript fragments found in the bindings of manuscripts and printed books (see also ‘Fragments’ in Manuscripts & Codicology).
Early Modern Encounters with Binding Waste - one aspect of early modern bindings was the repurposing of MS and printed waste. This essay by Anna Reynolds gives a helpful introduction to this practice. For manuscript fragments found in book bindings, (see ‘Fragments’ in Manuscripts & Codicology).
The Book Trade
The Early Modern Book Trade - this collaborative project between the Universities of Milan and Udine, focuses on the economic and social ramifications of the growth of the book trade within early modern Europe. The website features a digital database of book privileges (a license granting a printer exclusive rights to publish a book) in Venice, as well as a database of early modern book prices.
British Book Trade Index (BBTI) - includes brief biographical and trade details of all those who worked in the English and Welsh book trades up to 1851. Includes not only printers, publishers and booksellers but also other related trades, such as stationers, papermakers, engravers, auctioneers, ink-makers and sellers of medicines.
Scottish Book Trade Index (SBTI) - lists the names, trades and addresses of people involved in printing in Scotland up to 1850, including printers, publishers, booksellers, bookbinders, printmakers, stationers and papermakers.
Women Printers in Early Modern Antwerp, Leuven and Douai - this recently launched database, developed from the doctoral research of Heleen Wyffels, details the work of female printers within the Low Countries during the 16th/17th centuries, specifically within the three cities of the title.
Stationers’ Register Online – the online database of the Company of Stationers’ Register, based on Edward Arber’s nineteenth century transcription.
Latin Place Names - A searchable database of Latin place names found in the imprints of books printed before 1801. See also Glossary of Common Latin Terms Found in Imprints of Early Printed Books.
Women's Print History Project - In their own words, the Women’s Print History Project is a bibliographical database of women’s contributions to print during the long eighteenth century. The database is fully searchable, and forms part of a wider project aiming to recover women’s activity in the book trades, tracking their involvement in the making and circulation of books. The WPHP is directed by Professor Michelle Levy and managed by Dr Kandice Sharren, Simon Fraser University.
Book Owners Online - A collaboration between David Pearson, the Bibliographical Society and the Centre for Editing Lives & Letters at UCL, with support from the Bodleian Library, ‘Book Owners Online’ is a digital resource for seventeenth-century English book ownership. It includes book owner biographies, descriptions of personal libraries (and their dispersal), and where to look for more information. It gathers evidence from a wide range of sources: surviving books, lists and inventories, sale catalogues, information from wills, use of bookplates, and more.
Private Libraries in Renaissance England - this searchable database is an online companion to the Folger Shakespeare Library’s ongoing publication of the same name, which traces book ownership in England using book lists in documentation.
Unlocking the Archive - a collaboration between the University of East Anglia and three Norfolk Libraries (the Norfolk Heritage Centre, King’s Lynn Public Library, and Blickling Hall), including a new interactive digital resource that highlights a range of early printed books from these collections, pointing to a range of distinctive features of the book in questions.
When thinking about provenance it is also worth looking at some of the basic biographical databases such as, for England, those for the universities of Oxford and Cambridge (Oxford, Cambridge), and, for the 'third university' of the London Inns of Court, their Admissions Registers (Gray's Inn, Inner Temple, Lincoln's Inn, and Middle Temple).
The History of Reading
UK RED – Reading Experience Database - a database housed at The Open University containing over 30,000 records documenting the history of reading in Britain from 1450 to 1945.
Annotated Books Online - a free online resource of annotated early modern books from a range of libraries across Europe and North America. The resource is particularly rich in works of humanist scholarship, as well as books owned and annotated by scholars.
Resource page updated by Fay West. Last updated 09/01/23.