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History and Art of the Book: Background

Book History in the Harold B. Lee Library

The Harold B. Lee Library and its L. Tom Perry Special Collections contain important collections pertaining to the history of the book. Originally conceived as an adjunct to the Library's Renaissance and Reformation collections, the history of printing collection now contains examples of all aspects of textual communication, from clay tablets of the second millennium B.C., through ancient and medieval manuscripts, to printed books from all periods, including contemporary hand printing. These collections are now complemented by digital facimiles of early books. At the same time as these collections of original documents have grown in Special Collections the main library has collected related research materials. This guide is intended to help the researcher navigate the Library's resources, both locating original materials (e.g. examples of early printed books), as well as finding secondary literature about the history of the book and book arts.

Locating Early Books in the Library's collections

The Library owns thousands of early printed books (produced before approximately 1801) and they can be found by searching the Library catalog. Most are kept in Special Collections.

To find ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance manuscripts, do an alphabetic genre/form search in the catalog using terms beginning with "Manuscripts" such as Manuscripts, Medieval; Manuscripts, Renaissance; Manuscripts, Greek (Papyri); or Manuscripts, Latin. For further details, see the Form Searching page of this Guide.

To find books printed before 1501, do an alphabetic genre/form search in the catalog using "Incunabula", or click here.

To find early books printed after 1500, go to the advanced search in the catalog. Fill in the "pubyear" box as desired (e.g., a single year or a span of years such as 1500-1550) and click "Search."

Any of these books can be found, of course, by author or title in the catalog if that information is known.

The Library adds an entry for the printer to records for all books printed before 1601 and books printed by prominent printers after that date. To find books produced by a particular printer, do an alphabetic author search in the catalog after entering the name of the printer (e.g. Manuzio, Aldo, 1449 or 50-1515). Look especially for entries that end with the word "printer." For a list of printers and presses collected in the Library's History of Printing collection, click here. For a similar search within the catalog, click here.

The Library also adds an entry for the place to records for all books printed before 1601. To find early printed books by place, go to the catalog and choose "Other searches" (in the far right column). Click "Alphabetic Search". Enter the place name in the form "country city", e.g. "France Paris". Click "Place Name."

Early printed books are frequently cited in standard bibliographies. An example is A.A. Renouard's Annales de l'Imprimerie des Alde. These citations are linked to our catalog record. To do a citation search, go to the catalog and choose "Other searches" (in the far right column). Click "Alphabetic Search". Enter the last name of the author of the bibliography in the search box, e.g. Renouard. Click "Citation." (Click here for a demonstration for Renouard.)

Locating Early Books Not Owned by the Library

To find early printed books outside the Library use an appropriate bibliography or catalog. A number of these are listed below. While early printed books are generally not available through Inter-Library Loan (ILL) occasionally libraries will loan our Library early books to be used in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections Reading Room, so it is worth trying.


Catalog of around 10,000 incunabula (15th century books) in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, one of the largest such collections in the world.

English Short-Title Catalogue (ESTC)

Bibliography and census of all English-language materials worldwide published before 1801, and in any language if published in Great Britain or its colonies. Includes information about libraries that own copies.

Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC)

International database of 15th-century European printing created by the British Library with contributions from institutions worldwide.

VD 16 (Verzeichnis der im deutschen Sprachbereich erschienenen Drucke des 16. Jahrhunderts)

Catalog of publications produced in German-speaking countries between 1501 and 1600. For information (in German) click here.

VD 17 (Verzeichnis der im deutschen Sprachraum erschienenen Drucke des 17. Jahrhunderts)

Catalog of publications produced in German-speaking countries between 1601 and 1700. For information (in German) click here. There is also a Wikipedia article about the project.

WorldCat (OCLC) (Authentication required)

International database of catalog records from research and public libraries around the world. Contains records for materials from all periods, including early printed books and manuscripts. A scaled-down version of the WorldCat search interface is available without authentication at




The Atlas of Early Printing

Interactive site designed to be used as a tool for teaching the history of printing in Europe during the second half of the fifteenth century.

CERL Thesaurus

Names of persons, corporate bodies, places and printers/publishers recorded in books or other material printed during the hand-press era (1450 - ca. 1830)

Directory of Web Resources for the Rare Materials Cataloger

Links to helps and aids for all aspects of book history, including language helps, calendar computers, images of early printed books, and more.

Hill Museum & Manuscript Library Resources for Manuscript Studies

Lessons in paleography, codicology, and transcription; annotated manuscript pages for study and practice in transcription; explanation of terms used in manuscript studies; bibliography and links to digitized print resources. Beginning in 2016, this resource will also include thousands of digitized manuscripts.

Language of Bindings thesaurus

Thesaurus of bookbinding terms for book structures dating from the ninth to the nineteenth century.

Latin Place Names File

Identifies Latin place names found in the imprints of early printed books.

SHARP: Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing

Website of society specializing in book history, including a blog and other useful resources.

History of Typesetting: From the Printing Press to the Digital Era

Very brief summary of typesetting through the ages