Manuscript and Hand-Press Printed Book Research Aids

Generally Useful Resources--

Basic Rules for Working in Archives: from hygiene to professional manners, archival research requires a physician's concern for procedures and protocols to protect the books from those who love and study them.  Once you have adopted these habits, you will wonder at the barbaric obtuseness of other people's handling of old objects.

John Carter. ABC for Book Collectors.  London 1952; 8th ed. by John Carter and Nicolas Barker. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press; London: British Library, 2004.:  A dictionary of bibliographic terms you may encounter in the MS and Print Text and Archives section of English 241.  The page contains Barker's short introduction to Carter's invaluable resource, and a link that will open a PDF file containing the latest edition.  If you think about the value of a copyright-protected book being broadcast for free on the Internet, then you will appreciate the inherent importance of this text for the bibliographic and book collecting community.  The library also has a print copy if you wish to avoid surrogates.

Tools for Looking Up Book Editions and Printers:

WorldCat: a product of OCLC and Research Library Goup's merger, the WorldCat catalogue can be searched either from a free, publicly accessible interface, or from a membership-restricted portal accessible on Goucher's network through the Julia Rogers Library web site.  In March 2007, when this web page was constructed, OCLC reports that the combined database represents the catalogs of 12,000 member libraries around the world.  Use this resource first to check for other copies of your printed book's edition, especially if it was published in England or America.

The English Short Title Catalog: a specialized online catalog recording information on books printed in the U.K. between 1450 and 1800, covering about 460,000 individual volumes.  Use this resource first to check for other copies of your printed book's edition, especially if it was published in England 1450-1800.

University of Karlsruhe Virtual Catalogue: a research tool directed at collections of early books and manuscripts, especially strong in collections located in Germany and the rest of Eastern and Western Europe.  Use this resource first to check for other copies of your printed book's edition, especially if it was published in Continental Europe. a search engine that finds books listed for sale by independently owned bookstores, including rare book dealers, in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.  Hits on rare books often include photographs, which can be invaluable in determining your copy's edition.  You can use this to find copies of books that are not held by public or university libraries, though it will not find books held in libraries of private collectors.  Although ABEBooks was acquired by Amazon in 2008, they continue to operate as an honest broker between the independent bookstores with which Amazon competes and the buyers who might otherwise be tempted to buy Amazon's new or used copies.  When you see Amazon pitching a "Used and Collectible" copy, it is drawing selectively from its link to ABEBooks.  The company also has subsidiaries that specifically search bookstore catalogs from the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, France, and Spain.  Click on the "About" button on the home page for links.

Interpreting and Understanding Hand-Press Printers and Printing:

Early English Printers' Latin European City Names: early printers worked in a world of Latin texts, printing vernacular languages like Italian, French, German, or English only as the market supported it.  Latin texts sold to clergy and literate worshipers, to scholars, to lawyers and doctors, to government clerks, and to the tiny fraction of the rest of the population that was litteratus (i.e., Latin literate).  For this reason, printers' colophons and title pages listed the editions' place of origin by the city's Latinized name (e.g., London could be rendered "Londinum," "Londoni," or "Londoniae").  Some vernacular city names do not easily take to Latin, hence the need for a dictionary to translate them into their current, vernacular form.To aid your ability to read the city names in C16-era printed books, which were typically the names used by the Romans in the days of the Empire, compare what you see on your title page with the names in this list from Professor Robert Hatch's "Scientific Revolution" course Web site (U. Florida): 

RBMS/BSC Latin Place Names File:   Another larger guide to Latin place names i pre-1801 books.  If you cannot find your place name in Hatch's list, try this one.  Europe is a big place!  Created and maintained by Robert L. Maxwell, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. Initially created 1997 with the assistance of Karen Larson.

Henry R. Plomer, A Short History of English Printing, 1475-1898 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1900; reproduced in digital surrogate by Project Gutenberg at  How many early English printers can you name other than William Caxton?  How did hand-press printing with moveable type evolve from a few independent intrepreneurs (viz., the "Home Brew Computer Club" in the 1970s) to become a national industry that changed the world?  Plomer's book remains a highly readable source of the basic narrative.  For more recent, and more advanced studies of individual English printers, see the essays in William Kuskin, ed., Caxton's Trace: Studies in the History of English Printing (Notre Dame, Ind.: U Notre Dame P, 2006), 686.2 C38Sk 2006       

The Atlas of Early Printing (The University of Iowa Libraries): a map-based display of data describing Europes first half-century of printed books (1450-1500).  By clicking on the left menu buttons, uses can see cities which became major centers of printing, the volume of titles printed in a given city, universities whose teachers and students were early customers for economical printed books, paper mills, trade routes, and military conflicts that punctuated the era's government and social organization.  While admirable in many ways, especially in showing the relative concentration of the printing industry in certain areas (Germany, the Netherlands, Paris, Italy), the Web site mysteriously ignores William Caxton, England's first printer (fl. 1478-91), by far the most successful and influentia printer in London, listing instead the relatively later and less productive William Letou and the anonymous publishers known as  the Schoolmaster Printer of Saint Albans (1480) and the Printer of the 'Expositio in symbolum apostolorum' (tentatively identified as Theodoricus Rood,1478).  Data for the rest of Europe seems more reliable.  Also, do not be misled by its Eurocentric dataset.  Moveable type printing, like paper manufacture, was invented in China centuries before the probably independent invention of the former by Johannes Gutenburg and Johan Fust, Gutenberg's financial backer and later owner of the press.  Were we to map trade routes with the Mediterranean Ocean or the Silk Road as their center, Europe's relationship to Middle Eastern and Asian cultures would become clearer.  Want to do this?  Talk to me.

"Fraktur" German Typography Guide: this guide, created by the Yale University Library music cataloging department, will translate the gnarly shapes of German Fraktur type into ordinary Roman type.  These folks are highly trained professionals and they need this guide, so do not be ashamed to use it.  Fraktur is not for the faint of heart.  For instance,

= A  = S  and more maddeningly, = s = s     = ss

Words by William Whitaker: An online Latin-English dictionary that is less cranky than most and gives good results to searches which are careful about transcribing manuscript hands.

Vulgate (Latin) Bible: An online parallel-text edition which presents the Latin text (with every word glossed in hyperlinks) together with the Hebrew and Greek source texts and a Modern English translation.  If an early printed or manuscript text is Latin, it very well may be biblical.

What Year Is It?: Medieval and Early Modern cultures did not yet agree on a single calendar, and even the time of day could be named differently from one monastery to another.  The major European Medieval calendar systems are here linked to a calculator that converts modern dates into their corresponding Medieval equivalents.

Descriptive Bibliography Aids:

A Quick Guide to Arcane "Desbib" Vocabulary and Format Detection: an even more condensed summary of  the page below, concentrating on the watermark and chain-line clues to a book's format plus definitions of the terms "edition," "impression," "issue," and "state," each of which can be used to describe the exact nature of an individual copy's relationship to all other copies of a given press run.

Descriptive Bibliography Methods and Terms: a very condensed introduction to the art and science of bibliography, with apologies and grateful thanks to the students whose questions helped me develop it: Victoria Van Hyning (Goucher 2006); Jordana Frankel (Goucher 2006), Geoffrey Adelsberg (Goucher 2009), Cassie Brand (Goucher 2009), and Greg Bortnichak (Goucher 2009).

Type Classification Systems:  Type fonts, like scribes' hands, can be used to determine who printed a book, where, and when.  This is a 1-page description of English and German scholars' development of typography studies to aid in the study of undated or un-"signed" editions by William Caxton and other printers of incunables (The National Diet Library, Japan).  The English originators of the method are Henry Bradshaw, the Caxton scholar who originally had the idea to date/place books by their type fonts compared with known dated/placed books' type fonts, and Robert Proctor, of the British Museum, who took over Bradshaw's project when HB died.  In Germany, Ernst Haebler had the brilliant idea to streamline our first guesses about what type font we're looking at by collecting on a page the capital "M" types of all the printers' fonts they had ("M" being unusually distinctive in most cases).

Haebler's "M" Type List for European Incunabula Printers:  (The National Diet Library, Japan).

The Gesellschaft für Typenkunde des 15. Jahrhunderts (AKA "GfT"):  A German typography project to identify all European fonts, producing tables and lists of printers linked to images of their fonts (see tables below) and to Haebler "M" types.

A Type Identification Exercise: Click and drag sample type images over a half-page sample of printed type to see which printer's type font matches the one on the page.  This demonstrates the pattern-matching skills bibliographers develop with experience over time.

Images of a Large Collection of Bookplates: Thomas Murray Collection online at the University of British Columbia Library: Bookplate images help you determine provenance if you are in possession of a book that still retains its binding or "cover."  From the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, European, English, and English Colonial (e.g., American) book collectors began commissioning specially printed bookplates with which to identify their copies of rare books.  Some collectors pasted their plates over plates of previous owners, a sign of hostile possession, and others simply scraped them off.  Other collectors, our friends, maintained the chain of ownership history by adding their bookplates to successive or previous initial leaves or the front pastedown.  (Do not presume that a plate's numerical order in the book conforms to its sequence in the ownership chain--owners will use any available space before or after previous plates.)  Modern plates almost always identify the owners by name.  Early modern plates often use aristocratic coded iconography.  "Armorial" bookplates may identify the owner by a family's heraldic arms and a motto.  The motto will offer the easiest way to search for evidence if this collection does not contain your plate.  Just Google the motto as an exact word string (in quotes) and click on "Images" to search for your plate in another library or bookplate collection.

Matt T. Roberts and Don Etherington, Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books: A Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology:  A comprehensive list of terms, illustrated by Margaret R. Brown's drawings, maintained by CoOL: Conservation OnLine.

Rare Book School: "Rare Book School (RBS) is an independent non-profit educational institute supporting the study of the history of books and printing and related subjects. Founded in 1983, it moved to its present home at the University of Virginia in 1992."  After English 241 and the Goucher Book Studies Minor, RBS is your next logical move to continue learning about almost any part of book and manuscript studies.  RBS trains librarians and scholars to handle, analyze, and understand early books.  Their course offerings range from Medieval to Renaissance to machine-press era book manufacture, and they teach using a collection of presses and printing equipment, early books, and innumerable other artifacts relevant to the field.  "Introduction to Descriptive Bibliography" (G-10) is RBS's "boot camp" of bibliographic analysis, recommended for upper-division students planning on graduate study in library science or the study of early literature (Medieval to 1800).

Preservation 101: Preservation Basics for Paper and Media Collections Northeast Document Conservation Center.  Available online at:  An online course teaching conservation techniques, this site is mainly interested in paper, film, and electronic media, but its overview of building, environment, and collection factors provides valuable background on issues affecting the survival of all media collections.

Aids for Describing and Analyzing the Bindings of Printed Books--

Folger Bindings Image Collection: The Folger Shakespeare Library (Washington, D.C.) is an outstanding local resource for Renaissance books.  The collection focuses on Shakespeare editions, especially the First Folio, but to support scholarly research they have acquired a vast trove of other books from the era and the incunable century before it.

Bookbindings on Incunables in American Library Collections: Scott Husby began this project in 1999 at the Princeton University Library, and since then he has gotten numerous other libraries to contribute images of C15 and 16 book bindings.  Note the distinguishing features of C15 and early C16 binding practices, like book metal clasps and leather thongs, decorative stamping and other tooling effects, and, on three of the Italian examples, protection in the form of metal bosses, corner guards, and other devices derived from military armor.

Publishers' Bindings Online, 1815-1930: University of Alabama and University of Wisconsin-Madison's imagebase of around 5,000 decorative bindings produced during this prolific period of machine-press printing on (mostly) non-hand-laid paper (i.e., no chainlines or watermarks unless made by the dandy roll).

Aids for Reading, Describing, and Interpreting Manuscript (hand-written) Books--

English Handwriting 1500-1700 Andrew Zurcher's site is often recommended as the best online teach-yourself program to learn to decipher Renaissance manuscript hands.  Renaissance hands tend to be tougher than Medieval hands because it became fashionable to personalize your script, and the proliferation of literacy led to variants in the construction of letter forms, so there were many ways to represent all the letters of the alphabet.  Each writer used her/his own, so once you learn your author's hand, you can read it reliably, but until you become familiar with the typical variants, it can seem pretty hard.  As always, practice makes good, if not perfect.

Dr. Dianne Tillotson's Medieval Writing Site Tillotson is an independent scholar working on her own to develop a site that teaches "paleography," the reading of old manuscript hands from the Medieval period.  In addition to her lucid explanations of manuscript production practices, she has accumulated a nice set of Medieval manuscript images whose scribal hands have been categorized chronologically with practice examples so that you can test and develop your ability to read them.  (The are available directly at this page: Paleography exercises using Flash.)  Letter forms change more slowly than during the Renaissance, but even Medieval scribes, over centuries, evolved new scripts.  Changes often occurred when attitudes toward the accessibility of the text changed.  Remember that there is nothing "natural" or "obvious" about the letter forms in which we code language.  To one familiar with the script, a (to us) gnarly Gothic Textura hand would be far more legible than this web page's Times Roman, a descendant of the C16 Continental Humanist manuscript hand that was turned into type fonts by printers like Aldus Manutius.  The illustrations of the scripts' alphabets and sample transcriptions of scribal hands into modern type fonts especially will help students working with the Manuscript Laboratory, Part 2.

Late Medieval English Scribes (University of York): A searchable database of examples written by identified and unidentified scribes' in manuscripts of five major medieval English authors: Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, John Trevisa, William Langland, and Thomas Hoccleve.   Professor Linne R. Mooney, University of York, Dr Simon Horobin, University of Oxford, and Dr Estelle Stubbs, University of York were the principle creators of this enormous database.  While creating it, Professor Mooney was able to identify perhaps the most famous scribe ever named by an English author, Chaucer's "Adam Scryven," as Adam Pinkhurst, who wrote both the Hengwyrt Manuscript of Canterbury tales, the oldest surviving version (MS Peniarth 392D, National Library of Wales), and the later and far more gloriously produced Ellesmere Manuscript, now at the Huntington Library (San Marino, California).

Virtual Hill Museum & Manuscript Library: From the first major library to undertake imaging of irreplaceable religious manuscripts from Eastern European and Middle Eastern monasteries in the Cold War, when everyone expected those sites to be incinerated during an early nuclear exchange, we are slowly getting acccess to the fruits of their later, digital photography initiative.  Especially see the "School" with its lessons in Latin paleography.  If Zurcher and Tillotson are not working for you, try Hill!

French and Spanish Typography and Paleography Sites:  These four sites will give basic handwriting recognition training to readers of late medieval and early modern French or Spanish documents.  The Sorbonne site also includes early print typography, i.e., the type fonts from the C15-16 which were intentionally constructed to imitate Gothic book hands.

The National Archives of England and Wales Palaeography Site and Two Early Modern Palaeography Sites:  The "TNA" site will train you to read modern (1500-1800) manuscript hands.  Oddly enough, this is much harder than working with Medieval scribal hands, which were produced by trained professionals who strove for regularity.  Once every Tom, Dick, and Harry, and every Elizabeth, Mary, and Jane, became literate, they learned handwriting from writing masters who taught a variety of Modern hands.  On top of that variety of hands, there was a general increase in the individuality of hands as writers used them to express their identities (see Gloucester on Edmund's forgery of Edgar's "character" or hand in King Lear).  Even more obscurity was added when authors intentionally complicated their handwriting so that it might not be read by any but their closest friends.  What you write can be used in evidence against you more certainly than what you are alleged to have said.  The most obscure writing is bureaucratic--the tenth and hardest example is an Eighteenth-Century (1760) Act of Parliament proclaiming that a road in Cornwall was now a turnpike where tolls would be collected from travelers.  For Early Modern hands,  the Cambridge University “English Handwriting 1500-1700” online course in Renaissance handwriting will be useful for learning to read, and to date (approximately) the earliest writing in the Bright Collection:; “Early Modern Palaeography” (David Postles, Leicester U.) covers roughly the same era with different examples (

CORSAIR: The Morgan Library (NYC) image bank of digital surrogates taken from their collection of Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts.  "Current totals: 227 manuscripts, 9,609 page records, 20,285 images."  Searching by manuscript types may help you zero in on the identify of a manuscript leaf by its layout/appearance.

Dr. Otto Ege Collection of Fifty Illustrative Manuscript Leaves, University of South Carolina University Libraries Digital Collections:  High quality images of fifty manuscript leaves selected to illustrate the page layout of various types of Medieval manuscript books, and especially the era and country-specific stylistic traits by which an otherwise unknown manuscript leaf might be given a hypothetical provenance of creation.  Mise-en-page and script especially will help students working with the Manuscript Laboratory Part 2.  A different web version of these same MSS is at Case University:

Dr. Otto Ege Collection of Original Leaves from Famous Books (MS and Print): Another leaf collection at Case University, including incunabula and C16-20 printed materials, useful for establishing mise-en-page and typographical hypotheses about provenance of origin.

Parchment Analysis and Conservation--

Christopher Clarkson, "Rediscovering Parchment: The Nature of the Beast," The Paper Conservator 16 (1992), pp 5-26.: Unfortunately, you will have to see me to borrow my copy or buy a back issue from The Paper Conservator.  It does not photocopy well, and much of its value lies in its half-tone close-up photographs of various types and conditions of parchment. 

"Guidelines for the Conservation of Leather and Parchment Bookbindings," Koninklijke Bibliothek [National Library of the Netherlands].  Available online at:  Students of Early Modern and Modern documents will encounter parchment in bindings, or (rarely) indentures.  Medieval documents are far more often constructed entirely of various forms of prepared animal skin which, when they cannot identify its source for certain, bibliographers call "parchment."  Its physical characteristics begin with the animal from which the skin was taken.  Then chemical and physical processes were used to turn it into a flat and flexible sheet for writing.  Finally, after binding and use, various other forces begin to damage the skin: oxidation, heat, intentional chemical treatments and pollution, mammalian or insect and mold damage, etc.  (For forensic images of damage, see "Preservation 101" below.)

Amy Baker, "Common Medieval Pigments," Cochineal: A Forum for Student Work at the Kilgarlin Center for Preservation of the Cultural Record (U.Texas, Austin) November 2004, Available online at:  Baker summarizes recent research on the materials from which pigments were made for the various colors used in the texts and illuminations of medieval manuscripts.  She also describes destructive and non-destructive techniques for identifying them in a manuscript.

Iron- or Oak-Gall Ink Corrosion: The Web page linked to this topic will explain the source of mysterious holes and brittleness which can attack parchment or hand-laid papers made from linen rags.  Both of those substrates for ink would not ordinarily be unstable.  Modern C19-20 wood-pulp papers often had high acid content left over from their production process, and modern "brittle books" are a well-known problem as a result.  The corrosion and brittleness caused by iron gall ink is due to the ink's chemistry, which produces sulphuric acid in contact with water vapor over hundreds of years, literally dissolving the substrate beneath the ink.  Nearly all medieval and early modern manuscripts are written in this ink, but we may be thankful that printers used a non-corrosive ink which does not damage either parchment or paper.

Paper Analysis and Conservation--

Alan Stevenson, "Watermarks Are Twins," Studies in Bibliography 4 (1951-52) 57-91.  Available online at: (Use the "Browse by Volume" menu in the left frame and click on "4"--Stevenson's article is the fourth in the column.  Using the online version instead of a photocopy gives you access to clearer reproductions of Stevenson's photoradiographic images of watermarks.)  The article is somewhat dauntingly technical, but if you return to it when you have questions about watermarks in paper you are examining, his explanations will become more and more helpful as you grow to understand the relationship between the marks and the handmade paper processes that produced them.

Watermarks in Incunaula Printed in the Low Countries: Between 1450 and 1500, the earliest printed books have become known as "cradle books" or incunables.  This image bank illustrates a wide range of watermarks common not just to books printed in the Netherlands, but also books printed elsewhere on the Continent and even later than 1500.  The early paper market was based on exports from countries like France and Italy which grew large flax crops, and their low costs of production enabled them to capture the market in most places to which printing had spread.  Choose the "browse by main group" option to see examples.  For more information on and illustrations of watermarks, see the English language index of

Le Musée du Papier D'Angoumois--Le Moulin: A French paper mill site that illustrates, with moving images, the stages in the production of hand-laid paper such as that used in Medieval manuscripts and printed books until around 1800.  If your French is a bit rusty, the first stage (Le Délissage) cuts linen or cotton rags into small pieces to ready it for the hammer mill ("La Pile à Maillets").  The hammer mill was driven by the water-wheel run by the nearby river, which also supplied water in which the resulting cotton or linen paste was soaked to prepare the "stuff" ("La pâte") from which the paper was made.  (For early papers, you can forget "La Pile Hollandaise," which was a later invention.  The two-man paper-making team consisted of the Drawer ("Le Puiseur "), who dipped the mould into the vat of stuff and shook it lightly left-to-right to strengthen the resulting leaves' structure, and the Coucher ("Le Coucheur " who "puts it to bed"), who delivered an empty mould and received the full one, turning it on to the stack of felts which would absorb its liquid and press out its shape.  They traded full and empty pairs of paper moulds all day long.  Dried paper had to be sized with gelatin to prevent the printing ink soaking deeply into the paper, and it had to be rewetted before being printed so that it would take the ink properly.  Humidity control is one of the keys to high-quality printing.

Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing: Even for non-members, the SHARP home page contains a massive set of hyperlinks to resources for studying book history, history of readership, library collections, etc.

The Paper Conservator: A peer-reviewed journal published since 1976 by ICON, The Institute of Conservation.