The Universal Short Title Catalogue began with much more modest intentions. The original research project was a survey of French religious books, intended as a contribution to the study of the Reformation. But it proved impossible to make sense of French Protestantism without also creating a bibliography of Catholic books; then it seemed important to survey all French vernacular imprints, to establish how religious books fitted into the economy of print. It was only when this first project was nearing completion in 2007 that we conceived the more ambitious goal of extending our work on France to all of Europe.
For the first ten years we focussed our attention exclusively on France. That there was no comprehensive survey of French print was surprising: France was one of the main European centres of early printing, and home to some of its greatest practitioners. We determined to repair the deficiency with a survey of the book stock of France’s municipal libraries, a remarkable and much under-exploited resource. Here, rather than in the university libraries, are to be found many of France’s largest collections of early printed books: created from the wholesale seizures during the French Revolution. Between 1997 and 2005 we toured France and visited over 300 libraries. From 2002 we also had a postdoctoral fellow permanently stationed in Paris, who inspected over 30,000 items. We also pursued this work in most of the world’s great libraries outside France: in fact 30% of the titles we registered survive only in non-French collections.
The first years of our field work were essentially self-funded. The postgraduates who accompanied the trip subsidised their own board and lodging, and we were generously supported by Don and Connie Ryan and other paying guests. In 2001 the success of a major funding grant to the Arts and Hummanities Research Council allowed us to move our field work to a more intensive level. From that date the project has been continuously supported by the AHRC, through five successive grants totalling around £2.5 million. Friends from the European countries where we work have expressed their surprise that our national funding body will support so generously work in – and largely focussed on – other countries. It is one of the most remarkable features of our national research culture.
In our first years, and particularly in the smaller libraries, we spent much of our time creating inventories from hand-written or card catalogues. This data was collated with information from published bibliographies in a series of paper records. But during the first ten years of the project the research environment changed fundamentally. More and more libraries converted their catalogues and placed records online. For the second phase of our work, and for the USTC, we have been able to concentrate far more on the manipulation of electronic data, dispensing with paper records altogether. This has greatly accelerated progress, and made possible the far more ambitious scope of the USTC.
With the completion in 2007 of work on French language books, the project turned its attention to other areas of Europe for which there were no comprehensive surveys of early print: notably the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) and the Low Countries. These projects progressed far more rapidly, with the provision of many thousands of electronic records, though it was still necessary to collate and verify this data. So field work continued particularly in Belgian collections. As a result for Iberian Books and Netherlandish Books (published in 2010 and 2011 respectively) we were able to identify several thousand additional items not previously registered in published bibliographies.
With the publication of these two works we were a large part of the way towards completing the jigsaw of European print production. Other parts of the European print domain, such as the British nations, Italy and Germany, had already been tackled by national bibliographical projects available online, and smaller print domains in northern and Eastern Europe have also been subjected to intensive study by locally-based scholars. Making this work available through a single platform was now the major goal of the USTC. To this end we entered into partnership agreements with other major projects to make the USTC the point of entry for cross-national searches. Even after we had captured this data, considerable work had to be undertaken to establish common search criteria and harmonise data for search purposes. This has now been achieved as the USTC goes online.
In September 2011 the project group received the welcome news that the AHRC would continue to support the work of the project for four more years. This will enable us to extend the range of the database into the seventeenth century. It will also support the staff time required to respond to new information and corrections provided by our users. A major effort will be made to investigate collections of German and Italian books in libraries which have not yet been incorporated into the work of their national bibliographical surveys.
We also expect to expand the range of our services to libraries, and to make more digital copies available. This will reinforce the position of the USTC as the first point of entry for anyone who, for whatever reason, wishes to investigate the first centuries of the printed book: a critical milestone of the European cultural heritage.