Making Stanford Rare Books Easier to Find

August 19, 2019
Benjamin L Albritton
Incunable Search Results

In 1975, Susan Lenkey (Senior Rare Book Librarian, 1960-1976) produced a catalog describing Stanford's collection of books from the earliest years of printing, entitled Stanford Incunabula 1975. As the title suggests, her work provides a snapshot of what she considered to be a dynamic and growing collection of rare books. The list of 131 titles (which included books held at the Lane Medical Library) in Dr. Lenkey's catalog has almost doubled in the last 44 years.

Image of Stanford Incunabula 1975

Cover of Susan V. Lenkey's Stanford Incunabula 1975: A Descriptive Catalog


However, no comprehensive view of the incunable collection has been produced since 1975 as the collection has continued to grow. As a new curator in Stanford Special Collections, one of my first tasks (and an enjoyable one) has been to get to know corners of our rare book collections, though it was a challenge to develop a holistic view of our holdings of early printed books through our online catalog. Fortunately, Peter Whidden (Rare Books Specialist) and Vitus Tang (Head, Data & E-Resources Control) came up with a plan to add a field in the catalog that allows us to easily search online for all incunables held by Special Collections.

This approach provides a simple way for a researcher to easily browse through the collection in a way that was previously a bit of a challenge. Hopefully this will encourage serendipitous browsing and spark ideas for teaching and research, whether they are looking for some of the material we acquired in the early years of the Stanford Libraries, like a 1495 edition of Seneca's Proverbs from the fourteen incunables in the Hildebrand Collection purchased in the 1890s.. 

Hildebrand Library Stamp

Proverbia Seneca, 1495, bearing the stamp of The Hildebrand Library


... or more recent acquistions like the 1497 Valerius Maximus shown below and purchased by Emeritus Rare Books Curator John Mustain three years ago.

Inside cover of Valerius Maximus               Beginning of prolog

Inside cover and beginning of prologue Valerius Maximus : cum commento Oliuerii Arzignanensis Vicentini (1497)


Thanks to Peter and Vitus, it is now possible to search on "Incunabula Collection" as a subject term in SearchWorks and retrieve a dynamic list of pre-1501 printed books which will update automatically as new materials are acquired.

SearchWorks subject search

If we refine that search to show only materials held in Special Collections, and sort by year of publication, we can produce a fairly comprehensive list for anyone interested in this particular set of materials. The link to that search is here.

Further, as we continue to digitize the works in this collection, limiting that search to materials that can be accessed online, via this link, provides materials that can be viewed in the embedded viewer or, thanks to IIIF, be used in external viewers for comparison, annotation, and other research-related activities (like the comparison below of the Stanford copy of Johannes de Sacro Bosco's Sphaera mundi (printed in 1490 in Venice) and another edition held at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich. This kind of comparison can show signs of use from previous owners, as well as subtle differences in the various editions, encouraging us to think about how these books were produced, used, and engaged with through the centuries.

A comparison of the opening of two copies of the 1490 Sphaera mundi in the Mirador viewer

Making our Stanford collections easier to navigate is part of our ongoing mission to encourage research with, and general use of, our holdings. Many thanks, again, to Peter Whidden and Vitus Tang for helping to open our rare book materials up to wider audiences!