Incunabula Workshop in St Andrews

2015-11-17 15.49.54-1Early last week, on 16 &17 November, incunabula expert Falk Eisermann visited St Andrews to give a two-day workshop on early printed books in Europe. Dr Eisermann is head of the incunabula division at the Berlin State Library since 2007 and enjoys an outstanding reputation amongst scholars of early printed books.

The workshop with the theme Illuminating Incunabula – What we can learn from early printed books addressed various issues such as describing incunabula, finding information in catalogues and online tools and – most importantly – working with rare books in hand. The workshop brought together 15 participants who learned about terminology and digital tools for the work with incunabula. St Andrews holds around 160 of these early books printed before 1501 and the library has finished cataloguing all items held across various named collections in 2012 . For the workshop Eisermann picked a selection of 20 outstanding copies that he discussed with the participants over the course of two days.

To prepare themselves for the workshop participants adopted one copy as their ‘godbaby’ and gave an extended introduction to ‘their’ incunabula during the event. Eisermann added information on incunabula description as well as copy and edition differences when needed. Through co-tutoring, students introduced each other to aspects of illumination, typesetting and ways of indexing texts.

Working closely with Special Collections participants were able to discover a number of the finest incunabula kept at St Andrews. The participants could chose from a wide selection, ranging from the works of the first printer in England, William Caxton, to books such as Werner Rolevinck’s Fasciculus temporum, an early printed historical work and bestseller of the fifteenth and century. It was adapted in almost all European vernaculars shortly after its first appearance in Cologne in ca. 1473. On the second day the participants made a fantastic discovery when browsing through the personal copy of Hartmann Schedel’s Liber chronicarum. The author had left plenty of marginal notes in the book, among them a doodle of a devil.

Eisermann gave great insights into the study of incunabula that experienced bibliographers generally only acquire through long research. After years of studying early printed books, it can easily become a no-brainer to experts to know that no catalogue is neither complete nor without flaws. But for young scholars this is not a given. Examining a St Andrews’ copy of Caxton made this very clear. Whilst the ISTC stated that the work contained woodcuts, the St Andrews’ copy does not have any illustrations. Such differences are important to notice and can potentially cause confusion for any junior researcher when working in a special collections reading room.

Using incunabula catalogues is often tricky and requires special knowledge. In many cases catalogues are accessible only in foreign languages. The leading bibliographical authority, the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke, can only partly be accessed in English. Throughout the workshop the students developed a sound understanding of terminology and how they can describe incunabula. Bibliographic information on the first printed books is almost abundant, but finding a specific copy can be difficult. Eisermann explained in detail how catalogues such as the GW, BMC and Hain can help to find information on early printed books. He also introduced students to more specific catalogues; sources of particular use when trying to identify fragments. Together, the group identified a fragment found in the binder’s waste of a seventeenth century German book and attributed it to a printer.

The participants appreciated the hands-on nature of the workshop, stating that it gave them the chance to work with rare material in hand. Many students were happy to find sources that are relevant to their own individual projects. Eisermann encouraged discussions and created an atmosphere that allowed for collaboration when it came to identifying type, watermarks and other particularities of the books assigned to each participant.

The workshop brought together participants with various backgrounds, especially postgraduate students of History, Modern Languages and Divinity. Some participants also had a background in librarianship and the art of bookbinding which added invaluable insights to the workshop. In their feedback, the participants were overall very satisfied with the organisation and the set-up of the workshop and they hope that similar events will take place in the future.

Saskia Limbach and Jan Hillgaertner, both doctoral students and members of the Universal Short Title Catalogue, organised the workshop. The generous support of rare books librarian Daryl Green and his team at St Andrews University Library contributed greatly to the success of the workshop. It is the second event in a series that started in the previous year with a workshop on paper, led by Prof Neil Harris from the University of Udine.


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