Northwestern’s oldest books to enter international database

Ciara McCarthy, Editor in Chief

The oldest books on Northwestern’s campus, some dating back to the 15th century, are about to enter an international database, allowing scholars around the world to locate them in NU’s libraries.

Graduate student Andrew Keener has launched a project to report the historic works to the English Short Title Catalogue, a database that lists materials published between 1473 and 1800.

The project, Keener said, will allow scholars across the country to know which texts are located at NU, and will ensure the database is more complete.

“Scholars always go to Harvard and Yale,” he said. “We know there are a lot of books there … but often people don’t realize that they’re sitting on these smaller and often quite good collections of old books.”

Keener analyzed the numbers of old texts at prominent universities in the Northeast, such as Harvard and Yale universities, and found that they reported many more texts in the English Short Title Catalogue than did universities in the Midwest.

This initiative is one of the Global Midwest Projects within the larger Humanities Without Walls consortium. The project seeks to make the resources that Midwestern universities have to offer readily apparent.

“There are lots of old books in Midwestern university libraries and they’re under-consulted and under-studied,” he said.

The initiative is spreading to the University of Wisconsin and the University of Iowa, both of which will begin to report their oldest tomes to the database this fall.

With more texts listed in the database, scholars will be able to access specific information about different works and where in the world they are located, explained library assistant Sigrid Perry. Books published in this time period often varied significantly by copy because of the available printing technology, so the ability to study different versions of the same text can give scholars a window into the publishing process, Perry said.

Once the tomes in NU’s library are added to the database, more non-NU scholars will likely reach out to learn about the resources in Evanston, Perry explained. Keener said that NU could be home to several thousands of items that are not currently in the database.

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