News | August 1, 2023

Histories Behind Europe’s Earliest Printed Books Explained at Harry Ransom Center

Harry Ransom Center Book Collection

John Taylor, Verbum sempiternum (London: Thomas Ilive, 1693)

To mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s First Folio, the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin will display all three copies in the library’s collection beginning August 19 as part of the exhibition, The Long Lives of Very Old Books.

The exhibition explores stories behind books published by Europeans between the mid-15th and late-17th centuries, tracing them from printing houses into the hands of generations of collectors and bookbinders and, ultimately, modern research libraries such as the Ransom Center.

“Analyzing books as historical artifacts allows us to move beyond content to discover how they were originally made, who owned them, the transformations they’ve undergone, and how they’ve been read, used, abused and altered over the centuries,” said Aaron T. Pratt, the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts, who organized the exhibition.

Visitors will encounter a number of exceptional volumes, including:

  • Don Quixote that has been annotated by a class-conscious reader
  • a Bible that purportedly traveled to New England on the Mayflower
  • an atlas owned by Oliver Cromwell
  • a group of playbooks implicated in a series of high-profile thefts

Early books have often been used in surprising ways - a Harvard University undergraduate used one 16th century book as his personal diary around 1970. 

“Every early book in the Ransom Center’s collection has a unique story to tell,” said Claire M. L. Bourne, Associate Professor of English at the Pennsylvania State University and former Ransom Center research fellow. “Unlike institutions that have selected books based on their pristine condition, the Center boasts a large number of ‘dirty’ books, ones that carry the weight, and intrigue, of their histories with them.”

Scholars estimate that between 750 and 1,200 copies of the First Folio were originally published. Of them, 228 can currently be traced, and three of the four copies preserved in Texas are in the Ransom Center’s collection. Published posthumously in 1623, the large-format volume features 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, half of which had not been printed previously.

The Harry Ransom Center is home to extensive collections of early books and manuscripts, including cuneiform tablets, ancient papyri, 10th century Quran fragments, a complete copy of the Gutenberg Bible, manuscripts and early printed editions of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, quartos and folios by Shakespeare, landmarks in the history of science, and much more.

“Surviving books offer us glimpses into the lives of people who have come before us. They offer evidence that can help us develop new narratives about the past and better understand our own values today,” Pratt said.

The Long Lives of Very Old Books will be on view through December 30.