Early printed books at Senate House Library extend from 1470 until 1830 – i.e. throughout the period when every part of book production (making paper, setting type, printing, binding) was done by hand. We estimate that we hold some 200,000 of them. They cover numerous subjects. Economic history, general history, classics, Protestant theology, English literature (especially Shakespeare and his era), German literature, shorthand, magic and mathematics are general strengths. Music, philosophy, art, law, travel literature, other western European vernacular literatures, the history of education, and natural history are all represented.
Some books are hefty tomes. Others are mere pamphlets, chance survivals of bygone ages. The collections are peppered by such major cultural icons as Shakespeare’s First Folio (two copies) and the first editions of Euclid’s Elements, Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus, Newton’s Principia and the novels of Jane Austen among others. Three early-seventeenth-century Shakespeare quartos are particular treasures. Sumptuous hand-coloured natural historical volumes complement these jewels. Other books are obscure, from the first cookery book printed in Catalan and rare French and German Rosicrucian works to a Danish translation of Claude Carloman Rulhière’s incendiary Anecdotes sur la révolution de Russie en l’année 1762 (1797). There are runs of popular textbooks in various subjects, from mathematics to legerdemain. Multiple editions of major works are a treasure trove for reception theory--Francis Bacon, William Shakespeare, Adam Smith, Homer, Latin classics, and Euclid stand out. Some books are unique.
Beyond textual transmission, the books are important primary sources for the history of printing. Books printed by England’s first printer, William Caxton, and by his successors, Richard Pynson and Wynkyn de Worde, are present, in volumes which show clearly the transmission from manuscript to print. The major names of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and beyond are all here. The Dutch seventeenth-century Elzevir dynasty stands out for a special collection of Elzevir books. But there are also books printed by Anton Koberger in Germany, Aldus Manutius and his descendants in Italy, by the Etiennes in France, by Christopher Plantin and Jan Moretus among others in the Low Countries, Ibarra in Spain, and later by the Baskervilles in Birmingham. Numerous examples of indifferent printing highlight and contextualise the greats. We see developments in printing, as printers learned, for example, to print music on staves, and testify to various illustrative techniques, from early woodcuts to Bewick’s exquisite wood engravings and to lithography.
The books provide several examples of how copies of what was basically the same edition differed from each other when they left the printing house, as errors were corrected during the printing process or by hand at the printer’s. Once books left the printer, each copy embarked upon its own history of ownership and binding. Volumes in Senate House Library provide copious examples of early owners, famous or anonymous, annotating their texts, valuable testimony to the history of ownership, reading, and material culture. Bindings, further evidence of material culture, date from the fifteenth century onwards. Thanks particularly to three eighteenth-century clerical collections, numerous English seventeenth- and eighteenth-century books are bound in their original bindings.