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There are more than 4,650 incunabula in Cambridge University Library, the size of the collection a testament in part to the collecting skills of Henry Bradshaw, and also to earlier benefactors such as Thomas Rustat (1606–1694) and the Worts Fund (1709). The collection is particularly strong in editions from the Low Countries, but has many volumes from other European countries, particularly France, Germany, Italy and England. The majority of our incunabula are in class Inc. but there are some in other collections such as Sandars and Keynes.

A comprehensive history of the collection to the mid twentienth century was written by J.C.T. Oates as the introduction to his Catalogue of the fifteenth-century printed books in the University Library Cambridge (Cambridge, 1954). This introduction is now available online.

A five-year project to recatalogue the incunabula online ran from 2009 until 2014. The incunabula can now be located via iDiscover. Readers wishing to consult incunabula may still wish to ask at the Rare Books Desk for the printed, annotated Oates catalogue. Oates uses a short-title list technique known as Proctor order—the chronological order of country, town, printer and edition—which was devised by Henry Bradshaw when he was compiling a list of known incunabula for Robert Proctor's Index to the British Museum and Bodleian collections. The Oates catalogue contains indexes to authors and printers, as well as a comprehensive provenance index which reveals much about early scholars and their libraries. See Specialist departmental catalogues for further information.

Two online provenance indexes are also available, detailing former owners of incunabula in the Library's collections. The first lists personal ownership, the second institutional ownership. Owners are listed alphabetically, followed by brief details of the incunabula associated with them. Clicking on the links will extract the full bibliographical record for each item from iDiscover.

The image at the top of the page is from the first substantial work printed in Europe from moveable metal type, the so-called Gutenberg or 42-line Bible, produced in Mainz around 1455 by Johann Gutenberg, Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer. The colour illustration has been added by hand to the printed text. Only forty-eight copies of this edition survive, not all of them complete. This copy, from the collection of A.W. Young, given to the University Library in 1933, is of special interest as it contains marks showing that it was used as printer's copy for an edition produced at Strasbourg around 1469. Nothing else is known of its early history: it is in an eighteenth-century binding and was once in the library of the 7th Earl of Hopetoun (1860–1908). The whole volume is available on the Cambridge Digital Library.

References and further reading:

  • Oates, J.C.T. A catalogue of the fifteenth century printed books in the University Library, Cambridge. Cambridge, 1954. Full-text online version.