The Early Printed Books Project : Foreign Books in Oxford Libraries outside the Bodleian
par Julianne SIMPSON (Oxford ;

In 1995 the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) set up a programme to improve access to special collections in University libraries. This was given the lengthy title of "Non-Formula Funding for Special Collections". The Early Printed Books Project in Oxford began in June 1995, with funding from this programme. The Project aimed to create accurate bibliographical descriptions for
all foreign printed books printed before 1641, in non-Bodleian libraries. Work began in a handful of colleges, with a team of cataloguers and a co-ordinator. Since 1995 the focus of the project has broadened, resources have been accumulated, and much experience gained. We are now awaiting the outcome of a funding application to the Research Support Libraries Programme (RSLP) – a new funding initiative from HEFCE. This would extend the project to include foreign books printed from 1641 to 1800.

The Early Printed Books Project – a history

The richness of libraries in Oxford is a result not only of the collections in the Bodleian library, but also from the wide range of other libraries in both Colleges and Departments. The need for the riches of the Oxford College libraries to be made more widely known has long been recognised. It was realised in the 16th century by Thomas James, Bodley’s first Librarian, who in 1600 published "Ecloga Oxonio-Cantabrigiensis", a "union catalogue" of manuscripts held in Oxford and Cambridge. There have been a number of attempts over the centuries to create the same for printed books, but all eventually failed. It was noted in 1929 that "the desirability of co-operation between Oxford libraries is one of those things about which most persons agree but which never seem to materialize". It was in 1929 that a new initiative was begun that provided the foundations for the current project. At a meeting of the Oxford Bibliographical Society, it was proposed that a union catalogue of pre-1641 books in Oxford College libraries should be created. This was compiled by means of each relevant catalogue, or a copy thereof, being deposited at the Bodleian. Copies of entries for these books were typed onto cards and interfiled.

Work continued through the 1930s and there are several reports which state that the Inter-Collegiate Catalogue (ICC) was almost ready for printing. However, the file remained on cards until the 1950s when the records for British imprints and English books printed abroad were removed for inclusion in the revised edition of Pollard and Redgrave's Short Title Catalogue (STC).

In the 1970s the records for the foreign books were converted into machine-readable form. In the following decade some entries in the file were checked against the books themselves, but on the whole the file remained as a copy of early catalogue records, which were often of limited value for identifying the work in hand, being incomplete or inaccurate. A few print-outs of the file were made, but their existence has been largely unknown.

With the advent of the Follett Report and the offer of HEFCE Non-Formula Funding for Special Collections, the University of Oxford put forward the ICC file as a project for funding. A grant was made by HEFCE to fund the project, initially for one year, and then for a another 15 months. The Early Printed Books Project began with a team of six cataloguers who started work in June 1995, and used the original ICC file as a management database and initial finding tool for the project. Currently we have five cataloguers, two of whom also share the position of co-ordinator.

We have worked in many libraries in the last four years, and there have been many challenges - not just in keeping the project going from year to year, but also dealing with new technology in old libraries. We use laptop computers to link us to external databases and other online resources. When we enter a library, the first problem is ensuring there is a network link near to the rare book stacks. In two colleges to date we have had to run extension leads from rooms nearby, out of windows and into their old libraries, with varying degrees of success!

The ICC Database

The ICC file was converted into a Microsoft Access database. This database contains 34,192 records, totalling about 60,000 copies, housed in 70 different collections. Some collections hold just one foreign book of the period, Christ Church has 6,366. Of the 34,000, 22440 are to be found at only a single Oxford location, a few very common items have more than 15 locations and just 1 is held in 23 locations in Oxford. (Henri Estienne's Thesaurus Graecae Linguae, 1572).

This database is not available to the public, but there are now about 15,000 full bibliographic records on OLIS created by the EPB Project. This represents almost 1/2 the total, but work continues and we hope (if we can continue to find funding) to be able to complete this task. We can’t say at the moment how long this will take, except that there has been more progress in the last four years than in the previous 60!

Even before the fuller records became available on OLIS, the creation of an ICC database has improved access to the file and allowed us to answer queries more easily than was possible in the printed version. It has also been possible to produce figures which give us a better picture of the ICC holdings. This answers some questions, but in the process raises others, which we hope will encourage people to look more closely at the libraries and collections in Oxford up until 1641.

The first graph shows figures for the dates of publication of books in the ICC from 1460 to 1640. It shows a steady increase throughout the 16th century, reaching a peak in the 1610s and then dropping off after 1620. These results could be influenced by a variety of things. Of course not all the books arrived in their libraries during this period, but the late 16th and early 17th century was a period of growth for many college libraries. They moved their shelving systems from laying books flat on desks to storing them upright in bookcases, and received many large bequests. Or it could be due to external factors such as changes in the import trade, partly a result of changes on the continent. It may be a combination of all these, but it is only now that we can see the figures for ourselves, that we can start to ask such questions.

What about the numbers of books published in particular places - which are well represented, which are not, and why? The second graph takes its figures from the database and shows the totals for the major centres during this period - Amsterdam, Antwerp, Basel, Cologne, Frankfurt, Geneva, Paris and Venice. Paris and Venice have a much higher proportion than any of the others, and all together these 8 cities account for half of the total.


Cataloguing standards

The EPB Project aims to catalogue to the highest standards, in order to facilitate accurate identification of specific items. If possible, records are used from one of three external databases - RLIN (Research Libraries Information Network), OCLC (Online Computer Library Centre), or HPB (Consortium of European Research Libraries Hand Press Database). Where no suitable record is available, the item is then catalogued according DCRB (Descriptive Cataloguing of Rare Books) with some Oxford interpretations.

Authority files are used to ensure that names are drawn together, however many variants are apparent on title pages and in colophons. Names are entered not only for the main author of a work, but also for editors, translators, illustrators, engravers, printers and publishers (where these are known). Library of Congress subject headings are included.

The existing catalogue records, usually on cards, and only available within each individual library, are not very detailed. This is the same level of description in the original ICC file entries.

BOSIO (Giacomo).
Crux triumphans et gloriosa.
Antw., 1617, fol.

The following is an example of the standard to which the EPB Project catalogues:

Author: Bosio, Giacomo
Title: Crux triumphans et gloriosa, a Iacobo Bosio descripta libris sex; ad sacrae et profanae historiae lucem, et Christianae pietatis augmentum vtilissimis.
Place: Antuerpiae (Belgium, Antwerp)
Printer: Ex officina Plantiniana, apud Balthasarem et Ioannem Moretos
Date: M.DC.XVII.
Pagination: [14], 689, [47] p.
Format: fol.
Notes: Text in Latin and French. Translated by the author from his Italian work on the same subject. -- cf. BMC. v. 7. Engraved title page, designed by Rubens and engraved by Cornelius Galieus.
Subject headings: Jesus Christ -- History of doctrines -- Early works to 1800 ; Christianity -- Early works to 1800
Added Names: Rubens, Peter Paul ; Galieus, Cornelius, engraver ; Moretus, Balthasar, 1574-1641, printer ; Moretus, Jan, 1576-1618, printer ; Plantijnsche Drukkerij, printer.

Example searches

It is possible therefore to search the catalogue in a variety of ways.

Editors, translators, commentators, illustrators, engravers, printers, publishers, booksellers are all given uniform added entries and can be searched in the same way as authors. To this heading is added a "relator term", e.g. printer, which makes clear the individual’s role in the publication.
Example search : a=Badius, Josse.

Places of printing are included both in the form that appears on the title page or in the colophon, as well as in a standardised hierarchical place name, so that items printed in any given location can be drawn together in a single search.
Example search : pl=France Paris

References to published descriptions are given in the notes, and can be searched.
Example search : nw=GW 10481

Copy Specific
The nature of our funding has meant that there has been little chance to include copy specific information. The emphasis has been on the numbers of titles, and creation of bibliographic records for sharing with other libraries. Several colleges have provided money to include copy specific information for their own books. This means that about 1/3 of our records will also have this information. This may include imperfections, provenance names, manuscript additions or inscriptions, binding descriptions, previous shelfmarks and hand coloured illustrations. These notes are searchable by keyword.
Example search : cgw=brodeau
Example search : cgw=gilt monogram

Access to the records

Cataloguing is done directly onto OLIS (Oxford Libraries Information System), and the records are therefore immediately available. It is possible to connect to OLIS via telnet (telnet:// or the web ( from anywhere in the world. In addition to this, all the records are exported to COPAC, the online public access catalogue of CURL (the Consortium of University and Research Libraries), and are available both to researchers, and to other cataloguers for downloading.

OLIS now contains many records for early books, but this is still only a relatively small proportion of the whole. There are about 15,000 records from our own project as well as records for the collections in the Taylor Institution Library and Ashmolean Library – both as a result of retroconversion of their catalogues. We are also in the process of loading 108,000 records representing work completed so far for the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC). In the next year we will also be adding access to the Bodleian Library’s Pre1920 Catalogue.

We have begun to explore the possibilities opening up through new technologies that will enhance access to early material, outside the limits of the catalogue record. Important features such has hand coloured illustrations, booksellers marks, manuscript inscriptions and bindings, are difficult for even the most experienced rare book cataloguer to describe satisfactorily. The most effective solution to this is to make available images of these features to give the researcher access without the need for intermediary descriptions. We hope to make use of the new USMARC field 856, to link these images to catalogue records. The link, based on the 856 field, is highlighted in the record and will open the image in the default programme, usually a web browser.

The Web Site

The project has taken the lead, within the UK in the cataloguing of early printed books and is well known in the rare books community. We have maintained a set of web pages since September 1995 which have proved a very important means of publicising the project and keeping people informed of our progress. The web site has generated many queries to the project and we hope that, now the records are available, this will open up opportunities to many more people. In the future we hope to expand the pages to include a guide to searching OLIS for early materials so that researchers are able to make the best use of this new resource. We would also like to continue