Owners of Incunabula


Owners of Incunabula is a satellite database of Material Evidence in Incunabula (MEI) which gathers biographical information on former and present owners, both personal and institutional (and including binders, illuminators, booksellers, etc.).

Each entry, or collection, is defined by chronological and geographical (either specific location or by area) markers which allow the collection to represent a step in the movement of books. Crucially, the more incunabula are identified to belong to a collection listed in this database, the more we reconstruct the consistency of such collection, today generally scattered in dozens of locations in Europe and the US, due to the rich and complex history of book collections throughout the centuries, where ideology, politics, economic issues, and state administration policies played a major part which the database is helping to profile. Simply put, Owners of Incunabula allows us to virtually reconstruct thousands of book collections now dispersed.

Books were often decorated and bound at the place of sale, for real or prospective owners; moreover they equally often contain marginal manuscript annotations of anonymous readers: this physical evidence can be located and dated by able cataloguers, even when the specific name of an owner is not known: for these recurrent cases we have created in the Owners of Incunabula database blocks of Anonymous Owners, such as Anonymous Italy 1450-1500, Anonymous Italy 1500-1550, Anonymous Germany 1475-1525, etc.. By assigning different but similar evidence to the same blocks we will be able to compare it, especially once images will be linked to the database (in 2018).

Each entry can be made of multiple ‘activities’ which capture the movement of the entire collection. This facility has been created to describe a few but interesting cases, such as when we can follow the purchasing habits of University students in foreign cities: for example Johannes Protzer, who purchased his books while studying in Italy, then took them to Germany where his adult collecting continued. Multiple activities have also been used for the few occasions when we know that a collector formed more than one library in different locations, for example Count Boutourlin, who put together a first library in St Petersburg, and a second in Florence. Finally, multiple activities are used for large conglomerate of libraries existing under the same umbrella, for example Harvard University Library System, which includes separate collections such as Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard Law School Library, etc.