Work has now started on the cataloguing of our important collection of nearly 200 incunabula, the earliest printed books held in Cardiff University Library’s Special Collections and Archives. Incunabula, from the Latin for ‘cradle’ or ‘swaddling clothes’, are defined as books printed before 1501, in the infancy of Western printing. Our collection includes books from the first major centres of printing in Germany, Italy, France and Switzerland and our earliest volumes date from around 1472, just 20 years after Johann Gutenberg printed his famous Bible, the first book printed in Europe with movable type.
The cataloguing project will create an individual record for each incunabulum in the library’s online catalogue with special emphasis on copy-specific information such as rubrication, hand-coloured decoration and illumination, binding, annotation and other provenance. Many of our incunabula show extensive evidence of former ownership in the form of bookplates, signatures, stamps and marginalia and these will be recorded in each record as an aid to research.
The first printed books were typeset copies of manuscripts, often lacking title pages and even basic bibliographic information such as the author’s name or the date of publication. Sometimes details about the creation of an early work may be found in a colophon at the very end of the text, but as many as one-third of the surviving editions contain no information as to when, where or by whom they were printed. All of this makes the cataloguing of incunabula a highly complex and time-consuming process, but one which could potentially reveal new and fascinating information about the items we hold.
I have already identified several books in our collection that are unique to the UK and some of these may even be the only extant copies in the world. For example, our copy of a 1500 Venetian edition of Guarino’s Regulae Grammaticales is the only complete copy listed in the British Library’s database of 15th century printing, the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC). As the oldest and often most valuable books held in libraries around the world, most major collections of incunabula have already been fully catalogued and documented. To be the first cataloguer to properly examine and describe some of these earliest printed books is a very rare and welcome opportunity and it will be very exciting to see what the project uncovers as it progresses.
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