“Fifteeners”: Early Printed Books (Incunabula) at University of South Carolina Libraries

By Laura Stillwagon

"Opus", book top
“Opus”, book top

*Sigh* … Alas, books are no longer what they once were. To the readers of the 15th century in Europe (i.e. medieval Europe), bound works were both tools and art; heavily designed with functional and ornate elements. Bound items were prized possessions and served the purpose of recording information and looking great while doing it. In the Department of Irvin Rare Books and Special Collections, there are a number of these beautiful items, called incunabula (bound works created and published before 1501 in Europe), which were digitized and made available online by a graduate assistant here at Digital Collections, Kelsey Andrus. Her work on the Fifteeners digital collection emulates how luxurious these books were, and are still.

During the summer of 2019, Kelsey picked up the process of digitizing the collection after my work during the previous semester, and took it in stride. The previous spring, she endured trainings with me and the Qidenus SMART Book Scanner, an Austrian image capture machine that utilizes the power of two DSLR cameras. She also learned the post-processing procedures I had created for the project. To improve the experience of at-home users looking to view how well constructed these works are, she added scans of the edges and spines of the books. It took some ingenuity on her part to do this, for the image capture machine was intended only to photograph books laid flat, open or closed. To capture some attractive angles of the aged edges of the pages and binding, she gently leaned the book vertically against stacked pieces of foam—professional troubleshooting at its finest. The results come close to simulating the experience of viewing the book in person, showing not only the colors and contrast on the pages with ornate type, but also the detail in the binding.

"Opus", prologue
“Opus”, prologue

Through digitizing these books, Kelsey has made it possible to see the handmade details of each page. She measured the size of type, making note of the differences between titles, headlines, capitals and other instances. Some of these books do contain color and gold details (called illumination), and many have remained in remarkable conditions, sustaining minor damage and wear.

There are hardly any books that look like these on the shelves of stores or in peoples’ homes. Granted, publishing and reading are much more common now, making books and other materials much more available. However, all that aside, there is nothing like taking out the ol’ leather bound and turning the richly adorned pages to make reading a little bit more immersive.

See the  incunabula we reference above, “Opus postillarum et sermonum de tempore”, here: https://cdm17173.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p17173coll37/id/480/rec/1