Working with Library Treasures

By Sandra Toffolo |

Our programme ‘Preserving the World’s Rarest Books’ has now existed for five years. In that time we have collaborated with 66 libraries from 17 countries all over the world, matching many thousands of rare early printed books. Over the past three years, I have been fortunate enough to work closely with many of these libraries and their extraordinary collections. In this week’s blog post I will therefore focus not on one specific book, as we normally do in this series, but on the process of matching books from our partner libraries to the USTC.

At the moment, the Universal Short Title Catalogue contains information on 756,000 editions printed before 1650, with 4 million surviving copies in close to 9,500 libraries, archives, and museums. These numbers are always climbing, as the USTC team continues to work with new sources and to collaborate with new libraries. Our programme ‘Preserving the World’s Rarest Books’ has led to the addition of many thousands of books to the USTC so far. Through a detailed comparison of the data sent to us by our partner libraries – from imprint to format, from pagination to signature statement, and as much other information as libraries are able to give us on their books – we are then able to determine whether a book can be matched to an edition that is already present in our database, or whether this is a rare book that is not yet among the 756,000 editions that are already represented in the USTC. This process has allowed us to come across many truly remarkable books.

Médiathèque municipale Pierre Amalric.
Part of the rich collection of the Médiathèque municipale Pierre Amalric in Albi. Reproduced with permission from Médiathèque municipale Pierre Amalric.

For example, one of the libraries with which we have collaborated over the past few years is the Médiathèque municipale Pierre Amalric in Albi (France). When we matched their collection of almost two thousand early modern books to our data, we found that no fewer than 280 books – 14% of their collection – could not be matched to any book currently included in the USTC. This exceptionally high number of sole surviving books sheds light on a large variety of topics. For instance, one book that can be found in this library but not in any of the other libraries currently represented in the USTC, is Decisiones Rotae romanae, probably printed in Albi around 1478. Such books were collections of cases heard at the highest appellate tribunal of the Catholic Church. Many of them have been handed down to us from the first decades of print, but the version held at the Médiathèque municipale Pierre Amalric in Albi is the only one to have been printed in this city. Albi was the third city in France to have a printing press, after Paris and Lyon. However, while Paris and Lyon would remain among Europe’s great centres of print throughout the entire early modern period, printing in Albi did not last very long: after the departure of the printer Jean Neumeister in 1483 the city would not have another printer until 1670. Analysis of books like this edition of Decisiones Rotae romanae can provide us with important insights into this short-lived period of printing activity in Albi, and into the development of the French book trade in general.

Médiathèque municipale Pierre Amalric
Decisiones Rotae Romanae. Image courtesy of Médiathèque municipale Pierre Amalric in Albi. RES INC C XV 351. 

Some of our partner libraries have collections with a strong thematic focus, meaning that an analysis of their holdings can provide a fascinating look into a specific area of research. This is the case, for instance, with the library of the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome (KNIR). This institute – the oldest of the Dutch academic institutes abroad – was established in 1904, and since its founding the history of Italy (especially Rome) and the Netherlands have received a special emphasis in the library collection.

Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome.
The library of the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome. Image courtesy of Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome.

The library features an exceptional collection of geographical descriptions, both of Italy and the Netherlands. Geographical descriptions are a very old literary genre. Laudes Italiae and laudes Romae – praises of Italy and the city of Rome – were already popular in antiquity, and such descriptions remained a widespread type of literature throughout the Middle Ages and the early modern period. Indeed, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, many centuries after the panegyrics of Italy that were written in antiquity, Delitiae Italiae, dat is, Eyghentlijcke beschrijvinghe, wat door gantsch Italien in elcke stadt ende plaets te zien is was published. This was a travel guide intended for people from the Low Countries travelling to Italy. It was a Dutch adaptation by Caspar Ens of a German text that was originally published on the occasion of the Jubilee year 1600. This Dutch adaptation was published for the first time in 1602, but the edition printed in Arnhem by Jan Jansz in 1609 (USTC 870331) has survived in only one copy, which can be found in the collection of the KNIR. It is by no means the only book of this type present in the KNIR library: many of the other 187 early printed books in the collection also show us how Rome and Italy continued to attract the attention of geographical descriptions for centuries, making this library an essential stop for anybody working on the history of early modern geographical descriptions of Italy.

shelfmark: Pregiato octavo DR58 (1)
Title page of Delitiae Italiae ,USTC 870331. shelfmark: Pregiato octavo DR58 (1). Image courtesy of Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome.

Every one of the 66 partner libraries of ‘Preserving the World’s Rarest Books’ has similar treasures among their holdings. Working with these collections is a constant reminder of the great wealth of exceptional, often even unique books that have not yet been given the attention that they deserve, and a reminder of the myriad of new avenues for research that still lie unexplored.

Sandra Toffolo is a postdoctoral researcher for the Universal Short Title Catalogue at the University of St Andrews. Her research focuses mainly on early modern geographical descriptions of Venice and the Venetian mainland state and on pilgrimage. You can follow her on

Is your library one of our partners? Let us know if you would like to contribute to this blog. Please contact us by email at [email protected].

Are you a librarian interested in learning more about the rarity of your collection? Learn more about how to partner with Preserving the World’s Rarest Books.

Further Reading:

  • On the printing press in Albi: ‘Incunables albigeois,’Bulletin des bibliothèques de France (BBF) (2006): 122-123. This article can be accessed online.
  • On the Delitiae Italiae: José van der Helm, ‘Instructions for learning Italian in two early-modern Dutch travel guides: Delitiae Italiae (1602) and Delitiae Urbis Romae (1625),’ Incontri: Rivista europea di studi italiani 29 (2014): 29-40.

BnF images are available from the Gallica under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence. Copyright of Gallica.

%d bloggers like this: