The Infancy of Printing
Incunabula at the Golda Meir Library
The Golda Meir Library holds a modest collection of books printed before 1501. The value of these holdings lies not in their size, but in their presence as exemplars of the earliest developments of book production in the first fifty years of printing, complementing the library's holdings of early printed works. Just as we are currently poised on the cusp of a transition from print to electronic and multimedia communication, incunabula offers physical evidence of the transitional phase between the manuscript and print traditions.
"The Infancy of Printing" includes twelve examples of books printed before 1501 from the library's Special Collections and American Geographical Society Collection. The Golda Meir Library holds many old and rare materials for research and teaching, but the oldest books, those printed between 1455 and 1501, are held in these two departments. Books printed during this period are called incunabula or incunables, from the Latin word for cradle, since the late fifteenth century constitutes the infancy of the printing tradition. Studying incunabula reveals much about the life, culture, and tastes of the educated during the Renaissance, and offers considerable insight into the origins of a tradition that has vastly affected the course of human culture and development. The exhibition has been organized to bring some focus to these issues.
The exhibition is divided into three sections: Manuscript Tradition and the Transition to Printing, Sacred Texts, and Secular Texts. You may proceed on a guided tour of the exhibit by moving sequentially from one page to the next, or you can access individual items in the exhibit by viewing the table of contents, below.
Featured in the exhibition is the beautifully rubricated 1473 edition of St. Augustine's De civitate dei (City of God), printed by Gutenberg's successor Peter Schoeffer. This copy had been placed on loan in the Golda Meir Library's Special Collections until 1999 in order to provide an appropriate environment for preservation, while ensuring secure access to the volume by students and scholars. It was acquired by Marquette University, Milwaukee, in March 1999.
Other materials in the exhibition include a leaf from the 1459 Catholicon printed in Mainz by Johann Gutenberg; a 1478 Roman printing of Ptolemy's Cosmographia, containing some of the earliest copperplate engravings in a printed book, and one of only two known copies printed on vellum; and a leaf from William Caxton's 1478 printing of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, one of the earliest books printed in England. A unique element in this exhibit was a hands-on demonstration of the transition from the manuscript tradition to early printing, featuring a facsimile of Gutenberg's 1455/56 42-line Bible, considered the first book to be printed, and three salvaged fragments of early renaissance manuscripts on loan to the library for this exhibit from the Book Restoration and Conservation Co. of Kenosha.
In association with the exhibition, the Friends of the Golda Meir Library sponsored a public lecture on "The World of the Renaissance Print Shop" by Merry Wiesner-Hanks, UWM professor of history and director of the Women's Studies Program. Professor Wiesner-Hanks's area of research is sixteenth-century Germany, particularly women's lives, and her documentary evidence begins with the advent of printing in the 1450s. Her presentation, followed by a reception and viewing of the exhibition, took place in the Fourth Floor Conference Center, Golda Meir Library, on Sunday, January 21, 1996.
Under the direction of Special Collections Librarian Max Yela, "The Infancy of Printing" was researched and prepared by student interns Christopher Barth and Anne Quinn, both graduate students in the UWM School of Library and Information Science. The digital exhibit was redesigned for Omeka by Anna Michelle Martinez-Montavon.