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Guide to Early Printed Books

A guide to help you locate and use books printed in the major languages of Western Europe between 1450 and 1700

Guide to Early Printed Books: Introduction

Map of Venice from the Liber chronicarum

There are two main reasons why your research might lead you to work directly with early printed materials: either the texts you need are not available in more modern editions, or you are interested in the textual history of the works. This guide seeks to help you find more obscure texts that may be useful to your research, and to help you learn more about the early centuries of book printing. This guide also seeks to help you prepare for a research trip to study early books, or to help you find digital copies to study anywhere.

Searching for Texts

If you already know what you are looking for, you might find it via WorldCat or other consolidated library search portals. Many countries are working on unified online catalogs, but these may not include smaller private libraries. Rare book collections may not always be integrated into these databases, or even into the online catalogs of individual libraries. If you just want to explore what texts might be out there, these types of search engines might not be of much help. For all of these reasons, printed catalogs and bibliographies are still very important. Please consult the section on bibliographies below and on the page of the country that interests you.

Below are two of the most important online catalogs. These are great places to begin your search, but don't give up if you don't find what you're looking for right away.


The University of Chicago Library contains many volumes of bibliographies that might be helpful to you in more detailed and concrete ways than online catalogs are. Since we are dealing with early printed books, even quite old bibliographical volumes can be a valuable resource. There are a wide range of bibliographies in the library’s collection, each designed for specific needs. Please see the area-specific pages of this guide for information about bibliographies in different languages. 

Catalogs of large libraries can also be very helpful in getting a sense of what is available: the library holds numerous catalogs from the national libraries of Spain, France, and Britain, and from the various regional libraries of Italy and Germany.

Below, you will find a few examples of bibliographies and guides to using them in the Regenstein’s collection that may be useful to you in your research. These are just examples, so please explore on your own and don’t hesitate to contact your area librarian for further assistance.

Visiting Libraries and Archives

Many of the libraries and archives you will wish to visit in Europe require users to perform many steps in order to access their materials. These libraries are understandably very protective of their fragile old resources, and the researcher who wishes to use them should be prepared to be patient and accommodating of the institutions' procedures. These procedures vary: some institutions require an appointment in advance, some require a researcher's card, some charge a fee. It is advisable to familiarize yourself with an institution's requirements well in advance.

If you plan to conduct research in the summer, it is also important to check if the library will be open. Many may have limited hours, or be closed entirely for part or all of August. 

Vocabulary You Will Need

Early Modern Orthography

Some features of orthography common to many languages in early modern Europe include:

In general, spelling was not fixed at the time, and can vary greatly. During the medieval period, scribes used various contractions and abbreviations, and printers carried on using these. Each language has its own idiosyncratic usages, and each printing house had its own customs. All this can make deciphering early printed books an exciting adventure. 

Each country page of this guide contains a language-specific orthography section.

Learn More about Early Printing


British Isles


Italian Peninsula

Iberian Peninsula



Author of This Guide

Katrina Powers

Katrina Powers is a doctoral candidate in Romance Languages and Literatures. She created this guide in summer 2016.