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Early Printed Books (Europe 1450 to 1800)

This guide offers bibliographic tools for understanding the national output of printed works in early modern Europe .

Concepts in Bibliography

Every research project on early Europe may benefit from exploring a well-informed research question computationally in an appropriate and representative collection of digital books. To make representative claims about findings from a computational analysis, the collection of books used in the analysis needs to be of a representative scope as well.  Whether a researcher puts together a collection of books on their own, or whether they use a pre-existing collection, they have to be able to describe the scope of the collection used for analysis in relation to the total output of printed books from the relevant time period, region, language, or subject. 

The following concepts in bibliography are important for this work:

  • Incunabula
  • Short Title Catalogs
  • National Bibliography
  • Retrospective National Bibliography
  • Public Domain Digital Libraries
  • Subscription Digital Libraries
  • Text Corpora

The concepts are defined below.



From the Latin word cunae, meaning "cradle."  Books, pamphlets, calendars, and indulgences printed from movable type in Europe prior to 1501, during the earliest years (infancy) of printing. The earliest example is the Gutenberg Bible believed to have been printed before 1456 in Mainz, Germany, by Johann Gutenberg, who is credited with the invention of modern printing. For other examples, see the Canon Missae (1458) of Johann Fust and Peter Schöffer (Columbia University Libraries). See also the online exhibition Printing in England from William Caxton to Christopher Barker (Glasgow University Library) and Hypnerotomachia Polyphili by Francisco Colonna printed by Aldus Manutius of Venice in 1499 (Royal Library of Denmark). Like medieval manuscripts, incunabula may contain hand-decorated initial letters and borders (see this copy of the first edition printed in France, courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France). For more information about incunabula, see The Infancy of Printing (Univ. of Wisconsin-Milwaukie Libraries) and Incunabula: Dawn of Western Printing (National Diet Library, Japan). The Incunabula Short-Title Catalogue developed the British Library is now available as a searchable online database. See also UC Berkeley's Incunabula Database. Singular: incunabulum. Synonymous with cradle books and incunables.  See also:  xylograph.

From: Online Dictionary of Library and Information Science (ODLIS)

Incunabula, printing from movable type prior to 1501, often do not follow conventions about title pages, author and publication date information, etc. For this reason they are cataloged in separate bibliographies, where they are described based on watermarks, quality of paper, likely printer, likely city, etc. and incunabula, printed before 1501 are often not included in retrospective bibliographies.

Short Title Catalogs

short title catalogue
A bibliographic resource that lists printed items in abbreviated entries, retaining the most important words in their titles (example:  Nineteenth-Century Short Title Catalogue covering English-language books printed between 1801 and 1919).  Short title catalogues typically cover early modern books and pamphlets, which often have long descriptive titles.  Click here to see the Wikipedia list of short title catalogues. Also spelled catalog.
Short Title Catalogue (STC)
Compiled by A.W. Pollard and G.R. Redgrave, Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and of English Books Printed Abroad, 1475-1640 was published in 1926 by the Bibliographical Society, London.  Revision and enlargement of the first edition, begun by W.A. Jackson and F.S. Ferguson, was completed by Katherine F. Pantzer from 1976 to 1986.  Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and British America, and of English Books Printed in Other Countries, 1641-1700, compiled by Donald G. Wing of the Yale University Library as a continuation of Pollard and Redgrave's work, was published in three volumes by the Index Society, New York, from 1945 to 1951.  
English short Title Catalogue (ESTC)
A project begun in 1976 by the British Library and the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS) to create, under the title Eighteenth Century Short Title Catalogue, a comprehensive machine-readable union catalog of books, pamphlets, and other ephemeral material printed in English-speaking countries and colonies from 1701 to 1800. In 1987, when the decision was made to include monographs printed prior to 1701, the title changed to English Short Title Catalogue. In 1992, the ESTC was further extended to include serial publications. Click here to connect to ESTC (1473-1800) at the British Library.
From: Online Dictionary of Library and Information Science (ODLIS)

National Bibliography

National Bibliography

An ongoing list of the books and other materials published or distributed in a specific country, especially works written about the country and its inhabitants or in its national language, for example, Canadianaand the British National Bibliography (BNB), which since 1950 has provided a weekly list of new titles published in Great Britain. The focus of national bibliography has traditionally been print materials (books, serials, pamphlets, maps, printed music, government documents, etc.), but nonprint media including works created in digital formats are also listed in some countries.

As noted in the International Encyclopedia of Information and Library Science (Routledge, 2003), current national bibliography was originally undertaken by the book trade to facilitate commerce (as exemplified by the Cumulative Book Index in the United States) but since the early 1950s, the regular listing of new publications has been regarded as the proper function of a national agency, usually operating within the national library.  Retrospective national bibliography has been accomplished in part by publication of the catalogs of the national library, based on collections established by copyright deposit. Projects such as the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) have extended retrospective bibliography beyond the holdings of national libraries.
From: Online Dictionary of Library and Information Science (ODLIS)

The International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA)  has created a registry that gives quick factual information about when a country started with a concerted contemporary effort to identify publish yearly lists of publication. The registry is not complete, but allows a quick overview for selected European countries:

Andorra | Austria | Canada | Croatia | Cyprus | Czech Republic |
Denmark | Finland | France | Germany | Greece | Hungary | Italy |
 Latvia | Lithuania | Malta | Norway | Serbia | Slovenia | Spain |
 Sweden | Switzerland | United Kingdom 

Retrospective National Bibliograpy

retrospective bibliography

bibliography restricted to materials published in the past, usually limited to a specific period of time (example:  Agriculture and the GATT: A Retrospective Bibliography, 1948-1980 by Wayne K. Olson). The opposite of current bibliography.
From: Online Dictionary of Library and Information Science (ODLIS)
Retrospective National Bibliography
A bibliography restricted its scope to a period in time (country or language), and gathers a list of every title published during that time period. A retrospective national bibliography uses many sources of information, especially previous bibliographies with a smaller scope. To undestand how retrospective national bibliographies proceed, read the work: 


The Bibliographie der nationalen Bibliographien = Bibliographie mondiale des bibliographies nationales = A world bibliography of national bibliographies, by Friedrich Domay, from 1987, which covers both retrospective and current projects up to 1980. While this work is out of date for modern national bibliographies, it is a key work for sources used in retrospective national bibliographies.

Public Domain or Open Digital Library

public domain

Worknot protected by copyright, or for which copyright has expired, which may be printed for distribution and sale, quotedexcerpted, reproduced, and made available online to the public without infringement, for example, a government document over which an agency decides not to exercise copyright in order to make its content widely known.  Project Gutenberg is an example of a service that provides online full-text of literary works in the public domain. Lolly Gasaway of the University of North Carolina provides a chart of When U.S. Works Pass into the Public domain. The term also applies to computer software (freeware and shareware) made available by the designer(s) at no charge as a public service.  Click here to connect to the homepage of the Union for the Public Domain.  See alsoabandonment of copyright.
From: Online Dictionary of Library and Information Science (ODLIS)
A Public Domain Digital Library is a collection of Digitized Books that is open to the user without restrictions. However, while the works are in the public domain, the scanned images may be restricted to view only, and not for reproduction

Subscription (Database) Digital Library


The right to receive a newspaper or periodical for a designated period of time (or prescribed number of successive issues), upon payment of a subscription fee payable in advance to the publisher or subscription agent. For journals, the period is usually one calendar year (January 1 through December 31); for newspapers and magazines, one year from the date of the first issue received. First-time subscribers may be offered a heavily discounted subscription price as an inducement to subscribe. Most subscriptions are delivered by post and renewed annually.  See also:  bulk subscriptionexpiration date, and fulfillment year.

Also refers to the right of a library or library system to provide access to a bibliographic database, or other online resource, to its patrons under licensing agreement with a vendor, upon payment of an annual subscription fee and subject to renewal.
From: Online Dictionary of Library and Information Science (ODLIS)

A database to which Duke University Libraries subscribe must be accessed from the Research Databases A-Z list.

Text Corpora

The very succinct definition from From: Niladri S, Dash, and S Arulmozi, "Definition of Corpus," in: History, Features, and Typology of Language Corpora. Singapore: Springer Singapore, 2018, 1-15 demonstrates that a text corpus is not simply the plain text behind a scan. Building a corpus implies a series of decisions that can change research outcomes:

  • Compatible to Computer

  • Operational in research and application

  • Representative of the source language

  • Processed by both man and machine

  • Unlimited in amount of language data

  • Systematic in the formation and text representation

The definition from the The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar (2 ed.), 2014 also indicates the methodological approaches to working with a corpus

corpus  (Plural corpusescorpora.) 

A collection of authentic spoken and/or written texts.

The study of the English language has been transformed in recent decades by the collection of large quantities of authentic texts in corpora on which grammatical, pragmatic, lexicographic, historical, etc. analyses can be based.

•• corpus-based: Research that is corpus-based is deductive in outlook in that it uses (annotated) corpora to test hypotheses about language.

•• corpus-driven: Research that is corpus-driven is inductive in outlook and takes unannotated corpus data as the starting point for investigation.

•• corpus linguistics: a methodological approach to the study of language by means of corpora, now usually in computerized form.