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University Libraries - News, Events & Exhibits

"Our First Century: Early Printed Books, 1471 - 1571"

Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library


This exhibition, which is on display in the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections in the Hollings Library, has been extended through mid-May.

This exhibition explores the earliest printed books owned by the University of South Carolina. Beginning with two works from 1471, it looks forward 100 years – our first century – giving the viewer a look into the diverse universe of books produced in the earliest days of printing in the West. Many, if not most, of the works in these cases will be unfamiliar to today’s casual reader. Religious texts, along with civil and canon law, made up a large proportion of early printed books. But other types and genres of printed works do exist and can be found here. The printing of authors from ancient Greece and Rome was a major focus for many early printers and publishers. There is a significant dialogue that takes place between contemporary authors, editors, translators and printers in the 15th and 16th centuries with their Greek and Roman counterparts. Other representative subjects include early science, history and philosophy, humanism and the arts.

The formal development of the printed book can be seen here: how it moves from an early manuscript-equivalent into something new, formally, as a container of information and thought. In these cases, you will see some of the earliest title pages begin to take shape, along with increasingly refined typography, page layout, illustration and its relation to text, and the use of wayfinding measures such as tables of contents and indices.

Another set of questions this exhibition explores is the role of printing in intellectual and social development. The importance and uses of print to the Reformation, the scientific revolution, and the Enlightenment may seem obvious, but scholars of printing, the history of science, and intellectual history still debate the specific uses of the press, its products, and their meanings.  There is still much we can learn from early printed books.

Many of the works in this exhibition have been here at this university since before the Civil War. We know this because of ownership inscriptions in the books themselves and in the several printed catalogs of the college library from the antebellum period. As you will see, each copy of an old or rare work has its own history of transmission, interpretation, and ownership that can and should be studied.

-- Jeffrey Makala, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections