Early last week, on 16 and 17 November, incunabula expert Falk Eisermann visited St Andrews to give a two-day workshop on early printed books in Europe. Dr Eisermann has been head of the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke (Union Catalogue of Incunabula) at the Berlin State Library since 2007 and enjoys an outstanding reputation amongst scholars of early printed books. The workshop, entitled “Illuminating Incunabula – What we can learn from early printed books,” addressed various issues, including incunabula description, finding information in catalogues and online tools and – most importantly – working with rare books in hand. The workshop brought together 15 participants who learned about terminology and digital tools for working with incunabula. St Andrews holds around 160 of these early books printed before 1501, all described in detail in online. For the workshop Eisermann picked a selection of 20 outstanding copies that he discussed with the participants over the two days.
To prepare for the workshop participants adopted one copy as their ‘god baby’ and gave a short presentation on ‘their’ incunabula during the event. Eisermann added information on incunabula description as well as copy and edition differences when needed. Through co-tutoring, students introduced each other to aspects of illumination, typesetting and ways of indexing texts.
Eisermann provided great insights into the study of incunabula that experienced bibliographers generally only acquire through long research. After years of studying early printed books, it can easily become obvious to experts that no catalogue is ever complete or without its flaws. But for young scholars this is not a given. Examining a St Andrews’ copy of Caxton made this very clear. Whilst the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC) stated that the work contained woodcuts, the St Andrews’ copy does not have any illustrations. Such differences are important to notice and can potentially cause confusion for any junior researcher when working in a special collections reading room.
The participants appreciated the hands-on nature of the workshop, stating that it gave them the chance to work with rare material in hand. Many students were happy to find sources that are relevant to their own individual projects. Eisermann encouraged discussions and created an atmosphere that allowed for collaboration when it came to identifying type, watermarks and other particularities of the books assigned to each participant.
The workshop brought together participants with various backgrounds, especially postgraduate students of History, Modern Languages and Divinity. Some participants also had a background in librarianship and the art of bookbinding which added invaluable insights to the workshop. In their feedback, the participants were overall very satisfied with the organisation and the set-up of the workshop and they hope that similar events will take place in the future.
Saskia Limbach and Jan Hillgaertner, both doctoral students and members of the Universal Short Title Catalogue, organised the workshop. The generous support of rare books librarian Daryl Green and his team at the St Andrews University Library contributed greatly to the success of the workshop. It is the second event in a series that started in the previous year with a workshop on paper, led by Prof Neil Harris from the University of Udine.