I enjoyed looking at the University of Glasgow’s Incunabula Project earlier today, which got me thinking about Bradford’s incunabula. Or rather, our lack of them. (Incunables/incunabula are books printed with movable type before 1501, the term coming from the idea of the cradle or early years of printing).
Special Collections at Bradford includes many volumes from the handpress era; our oldest book is a 1639 edition of Bacon’s Essays. Pretty historic; and to most of our users, an impressive survival. However, in some ways, I wish we had more earlier books. I find pre-1501 books exciting not just because they are old, or quaint, or beautiful, but because they show printers beginning to understand a new way of communication. Printed books start out looking like manuscripts, and then the potential of the new techniques begins to be seen: title pages, contents pages, italic type etc. (I feel that we are in a similar situation with the internet and electronic communication: the growth of social media, linked data etc begins to reveal the true potential of these new ways of communication). Anyway, I try to visit or view online incunabula and other printed books whenever I can.
There are particular reasons why Bradford does not have incunabula, if one thinks about the ways universities get such materials: inheritance from earlier times, donation, purchase. We didn’t exist when such books were the normal stock of a library, unlike Oxbridge colleges or older universities. We received our Charter in 1966, which is rather late to benefit from the kind of philanthropy which would collect and then donate large collections of historic books. The University grew out of a technical college, then an institute of technology, adding social and political concerns when we became a University. Our humanities teaching and research tends to relate to our locality and the radical traditions of the region: modern history, archaeology – rather than bibliohistory and medieval studies. Our Special Collections reflect Bradford’s radical traditions and industries, the story of Yorkshire, and our concern for applied knowledge, in particular peace studies. Fortunately, this means we have so many great collections, full of stories and visual interest, that I don’t miss the very early printed books toooo much.