Digitising our incunabula: final phase of the early European printed books project

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By | Digital Developments, Early Medicine, In the Library

We’re nearing the end of our early European printed books digitisation project with ProQuest. After four years of digitisation, nearly 3.8 million images have been captured from 8,850 volumes published outside the UK before 1701. In the final phase of the project, we’ll be digitising a substantial proportion of our incunabula, books printed before 1501. This will take place from April 2015 for nine months.

Title page of Augier Busbecq, Epistolae (1595)

Augier Busbecq, Epistolae (1595). Busbecq was Imperial envoy to the Ottoman Sultan at Constantinople in the later 16th century and, among other things, was instrumental in bringing the ‘Vienna Dioscorides’, the most famous herbal in existence, to the Imperial Library in Vienna. See Library catalogue record.

Around 4,726 of our pre-1701 volumes digitised by ProQuest are already freely available to Library members and everyone in the UK on the ProQuest Early European Books site, and in time every Wellcome Library book digitised as part of the project will become available there. In addition to this, the Library will select 10% of the total number of books digitised to be made freely accessible via the Library player, rising to 100% after fifteen years. Thanks to the hard work of our Ingest and Cataloguing and Metadata teams, and their counterparts at ProQuest, the first of these are already beginning to appear.

Title page of Sebastiano Corrado, In M.T. Cicerone quaestura (1537)

Sebastiano Corrado, In M.T. Cicerone quaestura (1537). This book belonged to the Paris surgeon François de Noe, a well-known 16th century collector (signed by him in Latin on title page). The Library has a number of his books. See Library catalogue record.

Library members can also access the entirety of ProQuest collections 1-4, licensed to us by JISC, direct from our library catalogue. Collections 1-4 include material from the Wellcome Library, the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence, the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (National Library of the Netherlands), the Royal Library, Copenhagen and the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Our incunabula collection includes books printed in Italy, Germany, France and other parts of Europe. Many books have fine woodcut illustrations and bindings, and some have very interesting provenance histories, such as a book owned by the 15th century English physician Thomas Linacre, and books that were part of the library of William Morris in the 19th century. Below is a first edition of Luis Cabrera de Cordoba’s ‘Felipe Segundo’ (1619), a Biography of Philip II of Spain, with armorial binding.


To enable these old and rare books to be safely digitised, our Digitisation Project Co-ordinator and Conservation team have been working together to survey and prepare the books, and will train and support imaging staff. Our Metadata Co-ordinator has exported the MARC catalogue records and generated electronic bibliographic records for items to be digitised. ProQuest and Numen, the imaging contractors, will be bringing in a special scanner to minimise the risk of damage to the books.

Over the next nine months, some incunabula may be unavailable for varying amounts of time. If you intend to consult incunabula in the Library during this period, please contact in advance of your visit.

Authors: Dr Elma Brenner,  Specialist – Medieval and Early Modern Medicine, and Damian Nicolaou, Project Manager – Digitisation and Collection Management.

Elma Brenner

Elma Brenner

Dr Elma Brenner is the Wellcome Library’s subject specialist in medieval and early modern medicine. Her research examines the medical and religious culture of medieval France and England, especially the region of Normandy. She is also interested in the materiality of early books and manuscripts, and the digital humanities. For her publications, see She can be found on Twitter @elmabrenner.

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