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Library treasure hunt leads to world’s first bibliography of the 16th century

Researchers at the University of St Andrews have opened a portal to libraries and book collections around the world, with the official launch of a new online catalogue of books published between the invention of print and the end of the 16th century.

Launched in Edinburgh today (Tuesday 22 November 2011) the Universal Short Title Catalogue (USTC) is the result of over ten years of talented detective work, relentless information gathering, and meticulous field work – drawing on the goodwill and co-operation of scholars and librarians around Europe.

For students of history, literature, religion and culture this represents a research revolution – bringing details of approximately 350,000 rare books distributed across 5,000 separate archives and libraries around the world to their desktops, for free.

For the first time the whole corpus of books published before 1601 can be subjected to both microscopic and general analysis – bringing a new understanding of the literature that shaped the Renaissance. Indeed, around 30 per cent of the books identified have been found to be the only surviving copy of their title.

The catalogue also brings together published works that would not otherwise have been available – including lost libraries, forbidden texts, previously unknown titles, and unrecognised treasures. These new records have now been integrated with existing inventories – to create a searchable super-power that extends across national boundaries and many strands of work.

Professor Andrew Pettegree, project director, said:

“It is hugely encouraging that we have been able to achieve in a Scottish university a project of this enormous scope. The USTC will be a resource of tremendous analytical power, and should allow us to build an entirely new understanding of the new European communication network created by printing in what was the most significant era of media transformation before the modern digital age.”

Until now it has been impossible for libraries to identify their rarest works, having no way to cross-refer with items held in other collections. Now the USTC will allow libraries and collectors to help share and preserve our European cultural heritage – by setting informed conservation priorities, assisting libraries in deciding which books to digitise, and helping to facilitate the organisation of web-based exhibitions.

Martyn Wade, National Librarian and Chief Executive of the National Library of Scotland, who has agreed pushed the button to activate the portal for its official launch said:

“The historic collections of research libraries, such as the National Library of Scotland, are vital resources that help us understand our past – the world in which these books were printed and published. This remarkable bibliography will help unlock these resources for researchers, shedding new light on the earliest printed works whilst providing libraries themselves with unique information that will ensure that these collections are preserved for future generations.”

The significance of this achievement has already been recognised by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, who have recently awarded a grant of nearly £1 million to allow the project to be extended into the early 17th century – a dramatic time of explosive growth for print including the first newspapers.

The USTC will be officially launched today (Tuesday 22 November 2011) at Lyon and Turnbull, Broughton Place, Edinburgh at 1700 hours, in the presence of representatives of the national book communities.

Simon Vickers, Head of Rare Books and Manuscripts at Lyon & Turnbull said: “We are delighted to host the launch of this incredible resource for ‘book worms’ around the world. I know that I shall be making use of it with my research for books we often sell at our twice yearly book sales at Lyon & Turnbull.”

Notes to News Editors

  1. Initially the project was self-funded, with the project team and postgraduate students subsidising their own board and lodging as they toured France and visited over 300 libraries.
  2. After the first years of self-funded work, the project was sustained by a series of grants from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and British Academy, totalling over £1 million.
  3. Now the USTC project has been awarded a further £983,000 from the AHRC to continue its work from 2012 to 2016, extending the survey from 1600 to 1650.
  4. The USTC Project is undertaken by a group of 10 researchers under the direction of Professor Andrews Pettegree and in association with Dr Alexander Wilkinson of University College, Dublin. Dr Malcolm Walsby is the Project Manager.
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