Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Contribution from Gary Frost

“These scrappy little books are to historians among the most interesting productions of the sixteenth-century printing press. But they were no immediately thought of as worthy of a place in a respectable collection; often we owe their survival to the interest of collectors who in their own day would have been thought of as distinctly eccentric. Now these small books are very precious, but four centuries of hard living has dispersed them throughout the thousands of libraries around the world. This fact – that much of the output of the first age of print was seen at the time as being of no consequence – has meant that it has until now been very difficult to write the whole history of the first age of print. The books we now know best are those that were collected into libraries. On the whole these were the largest, most scholarly and most valuable, the sort cherished by scholars and rich collectors, then and now. Scholars who have written of the print revolution of the sixteenth century have likewise tended to concentrate on the most eye-catching achievements of the new art: the great multilingual bibles, notable achievements of scientific publishing, milestones of scholarship, the most richly and lavishly illustrated texts.

The more mundane productions of the press inevitably attracted less attention and admiration. But such books – almanacs and calendars, prayer books and pamphlets – were the bedrock of the new industry. They also offer the most eloquent window into the thought world of the sixteenth century’s new generation of readers.

How can one access the full extent of this trade, when so many of these publications have been almost completely lost? Happily this is one respect in which the new technological revolution of the twenty-first century has come to our aid. Tracing the sole surviving copy of these little books has been an almost impossible task. Now through, the sudden proliferation of online resources, catalogues and search engines allows us to gather together a vast amount of data that will permit us to match and compare information on almost all the books known to have been published in the first age of print – wherever they may be. This book presents a first attempt to take advantage of these global searches. The results are profound. We can for the first time chart a coherent narrative of print, from the first experiments of the 1450s to the dawn of a mass information society. For all the twist and turns, reverses, disappointments and misunderstandings, it is an arresting story.”

Andrew Pettegree, Prelude, The Book in the Renaissance, 2010.

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