15th Century Books in Print, Rare Book School

August 22, 2016

Kelsey Anna Sorenson

Library & Information Studies MA Program

First off, thank you so much to Friends of the Library for funding my week at Rare Book School. I wouldn’t have been able to attend without it. The course I attended, 15th Century Books in Print and Manuscript, was held in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania’s campus with instructors Paul Needham (Scheide Library, Princeton University) and Will Noel (Kislak Center and Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, University of Pennsylvania) from June 12 to 17. It was an exhausting whirlwind of a week with all-day classes; an evening lecture about subscription publishing; and a day trip to Princeton University to see the Scheide Collection, which includes the first four printed Bibles and is overseen by Needham.

The week was spent learning about bibliographic details unique to incunables and late medieval manuscripts, from the watermarks of the paper and variations in type to collation and rubrication. The majority of our hands-on time was on the last day of the course, which was a great culmination of the week’s lessons. The book I had the opportunity to study that day was a 1495 copy of Auctoritates Aristotelis, which had a great example of blind type and beautifully labeled quires.

As I mentioned earlier, the Scheide Collection contains the first four printed Bibles, and

a page from a grammar of Donatus. The state of the type places it as earlier than the Gutenberg Bible. (Scheide Library, Princeton University)
Page from a grammar of Donatus, the state of the type places it earlier than the Gutenberg Bible. (Scheide Library, Princeton University)

those were some of my favorite books to see and learn about. The term “first four Bibles” refers the Gutenberg, or 42-line, Bible; the Mentelin Bible; the 36-line, or Bamberg, Bible; and the 1462 Fust and Schöffer Bible. Beyond the novelty of being early examples of printing, what I loved about them is the printing variation you see in incunables, from both the newness of the technology and how printers tried to mimic manuscripts.

Even more fun was that while discussing incunables and printing practices, if someone asked our instructors for further information on the topic, we were often directed to an article written by Needham himself. It was a similar situation for Noel and topics of manuscripts and open access. There’s nothing quite like learning about something right from the leading scholars in the field and being able to pick their brain.

Rubrication and illustration from the Gutenberg Bible, vol. 2. (Scheide Library, Princeton University)
Rubrication and illustration from the Gutenberg Bible, vol. 2. (Scheide Library, Princeton University)

In addition to challenging my understanding of descriptive bibliography and how I analyze books, it was also great to make connections with rare book librarians and scholars from across the country. They are already great sources of information and advice, and having these contacts will be invaluable as I embark upon my career after graduation this spring.

SLIS is a very supportive community, and though you’re told that when you enter as a student, it doesn’t prepare you for the kind of support and generosity like that which accompanied the Rare Book School funding. Being accepted into my course of choice and receiving funding assured me that the career path I’m passionate about is within reach for me. Furthermore, the experience has sparked new research interests for me—I hope to research the Department of Special Collections’ incunables over the course of the coming year.

As I continue on my path of becoming a rare book and special collections librarian, I look forward to attending another course in the near future and eventually completing their five-course certificate, focusing on the book before 1800. Thank you again, Friends of the Library!