A Catalogue of Fifteenth-Century Printed Books in Glasgow Libraries and Museums

Summer is coming, Covid is lifting (even in Glasgow, hopefully) and it’s time to celebrate one of the richest collections of incunabula in the UK.

‘A Catalogue of Fifteenth-Century Printed Books in Glasgow Libraries and Museums’ is the result of over ten years of in depth research to fully describe some 1124 incunabula found in Glasgow. A project to catalogue these remarkable books began in 2009, picking up on work that began in the 1980s when the author, Jack Baldwin, was the Keeper of Special Collections at the University of Glasgow.

B35/1 (Sp Coll Ferguson An-x.13): Presentation inscription from Cardinal Johannes Bessarion to Lodovicus Marius Parutus

Bibliographically speaking, incunabula are some of the most well documented of books – identified and mapped out in precise detail in union catalogues such as the ISTC and GW. So, what more is there to say about them and what more do we need to know about individual copies in different institutional collections? As something of an incunabula evangelist, I can only preach that these earliest of printed books are endlessly fascinating on many levels. Witnesses of the past that you can go into reading rooms and touch and examine for yourself, they are hardy survivors of the first print revolution with its shift from manuscript culture. Each book is a cultural artefact, with its own five hundred years history, carrying signs of ownership, annotations and engagement that can often only be interpreted from subtle clues. Many of them are beautifully crafted, with interesting bindings and visually appealing decoration and illustration, found in a gloriously hybrid mix of scribal artistry and printed woodcut technology.

C31 (Sp Coll BC5-b.16): A unique copy of an edition of a plague tract printed by Johanne Bulle in Rome, ca. 1478, found by chance during the course of the cataloguing work

It is these unique ‘copy specific’ features that Jack Baldwin researched in painstaking detail for the first time for the Glasgow Incunabula Project (GIP). Our goal was to reinvigorate interest in sleeping beauties, in order to (literally) open these books up to a wide audience and to encourage further use and research. And as any book historian knows, the gateway to discovery lies in a well presented catalogue! So while the project began with the aim of providing data digitally via a website, it soon became apparent that an ‘old fashioned’ published catalogue would serve as a more permanent and stable record of the project. We were therefore delighted when the Friends of Glasgow Library agreed to sponsor a publication, and even more delighted when Boydell & Brewer agreed to publish it. So, just as Jack thought his work was almost done, he began the vast and complicated task of checking and re-editing all the data, reshaping it for print. We will be forever indebted to him for his dedication and enthusiasm, and although I know he despaired at times that the job would never be completed, I think he should be rightly proud of what is a magnificent scholarly achievement.

In all, the catalogue documents 1062 books from the University of Glasgow, plus a further 62 incunabula from five other institutions in the city – the Mitchell Library, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, the Burrell collection, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, and the University of Strathclyde. As well as identifying each book bibliographically, details of provenance, binding, annotations, decoration and imperfections are fully provided for each copy. A plethora of indexes further provide access to the idiosyncrasies of this wonderful collection from a wide range of research angles – from printers to prices paid, and from pinholes to provenances, including just about everything else we could think of in between. Although Jack made many discoveries in the course of the cataloguing work (finding, quite by chance, a unique edition of a plague tract slumbering in one of our lesser used collections on one memorable occasion, as you do), book historians should note that there is much still much more to be done and that the catalogue is ‘simply’ the well oiled key that unlocks further enlightenment.  

A70/2 (Sp Coll Hunterian Bh.3.26): A 17th century embroidered bookjacket from a 1496 copy of the Argonautica
B106 (Sp Coll Hunterian Bf.1.18): A magnificently decorated and illuminated page from a Breviary

The catalogue was published with very little fanfare in 2020 – in its own small way, another victim of the Covid pandemic. But Glasgow loves a good party, and we simply cannot let this cataloguing triumph pass by without a virtual song and dance. Almost a year on from publication, therefore, we are now arranging a virtual book launch, and we would love it if you could come and join us. Featuring a dazzling array of speakers – including our very own ingenious master, Jack Baldwin, as well as incunabula supremos Falk Eisermann and Cristina Dondi – we will share some of our favourite books with you live from Special Collections at the University of Glasgow.

We hope to see you there to introduce you to our catalogue and some of the marvellous collections behind it!


This guest post was written by Julie Gardham, Senior Librarian, University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections.

Link to eventbrite: Virtual Launch: “A Catalogue of Fifteenth-Century Printed Books” Tickets, Wed 23 Jun 2021 at 16:00 | Eventbrite

For further info, Glasgow Incunabula Project blog: https://universityofglasgowlibrary.wordpress.com/tag/incunabula/