Cambridge University Library — no, the incunables are NOT going online

We all know what we want — we want library holdings on the web, where we can all see them.  So I was rather delighted to see a news article yesterday that Cambridge University Library were going to put their collection of pre-1500 printed books on the web. 

This would be quite a first — the obscurantism of UK libraries has to be experienced to be believed. The Andrew Mellon Foundation, who have done so much for the world in funding online initiatives, have granted them 300,000 GBP to do the job; not a huge sum, but probably enough.  The BBC article here gives the impression that the incunables will go online.

But then a revealing aside:

Over the next five years the University library will produce detailed records for each item.

This made me look twice at the glowing claims, and look further.  There’s no information on the library website at all, which is not good news.  History Today magazine has an article here.  This tells the real story:

Cambridge University announced, today, the beginning of a new project to catalogue, for the first time, the University Library’s celebrated collection of incunabula, pre-1501 printed books. The term incunabula literally means swaddling-clothes, or cradle, in Latin and was adopted to describe a book printed at an early date, in the first infancy of printing.

Very few records of the Library’s 4,650 treasures are currently in its online catalogue. Records will begin to be catalogued this autumn and, over the next five years, the University Library will produce detailed records for each item, which will be accessible through its Newton Universal Catalogue. …

Although the project does not involve a complete page-by-page digitisation of the Library’s incunabula, the Gutenberg Bible has been fully digitalised …

As if anyone has any use for yet another Gutenberg online. 

So, the real intention is to have one or two staff members sit there for five years writing little card indexes (or whatever).  Digitisation?  Am I too cynical, to suppose that they’ll merely do a handful of books, as a sort of fig-leaf for what they really wanted to do?

Not that cataloguing is bad; but what we need, desperately need, is ACCESS TO THE BOOKS!!!  Not more catalogues.  Compiling a catalogue was the excuse used in the 19th century by Vatican libraries for denying scholars access to the library, and refusing them sight of what catalogue existed.  I don’t know if that ever-so-complete catalogue ever appeared, indeed.  But the obstruction of access was real enough.


10 thoughts on “Cambridge University Library — no, the incunables are NOT going online

  1. The Cambridge University Library (or rather its librarians and so many managers) is after its survival. For who would visit it if its “treasures” are available to researchers and readers at the tip of the fingers? It will become obsolete to a large extent. Its staff have become more interested in defending their vested interests than spreading knowledge, which I believe was once their driving force.

    But to be fair, Cambridge is not unique in this. There are many universities across the globe that are resisting digitalisation.

  2. I hope that you’re wrong, but I’m sure that for some libraries you are right.

    Most libraries will indeed become obsolete in the next 20 years, I would guess.

    The resistance to digitalisation from so many state-funded institutions is quite extraordinary.

  3. I am not entirely convinced that Cambridge University Library is resisting digitalisation.
    According to their communications officer, they do have plans to eventually digitise the collection. Digitalisation is a huge process, however, and requires a considerable amount of work. I also believe that digitalisation will be inevitable in the long run and that more and more libraries will actually be forced to digitise their collections in order to survive, as an increasing amount of material becomes available on the web.

  4. I’m not sure whether CUL are bad guys either, which is why I didn’t lay into them directly. They’re the most user-friendly of the major research libraries in the UK.

    I agree with you about digitalisation. This is a tide that is coming in.

  5. A lot of rare books from the Bodleian are on But they are often scanned pretty badly, and if I put up a note that a page is unreadable, the whole thing tends to disappear. Annoying.

  6. Ah. I see what’s happening. Apparently, the Bodleian agreement was supposed to only have non-rare public domain books show up on So when I try to get a better scan, some librarian does the same thing librarians used to do at my university library — he realizes that something’s on the public shelves that ought to be in the rare books section. So to speak.

    Sigh. Well, that’ll teach me to open my big yap.

  7. I also like Cambridge Library staff, but I think there is a tendency in almost all libraries to scan only books that are not rare, i.e. ones that are found elsewhere, and withhold digitalisation of what they regard as their “treasures”, i.e. books and documents that they – and they alone – possess.

    I think more pressure should be exerted on all libraries to digitalise all they have.

  8. Thanks for your notes, Maureen. I didn’t realise they were doing that.

    The irony of the Bodleian is that the books they scanned for Google books are mostly inaccessible to people in the UK, whose taxes pay for it, because of copyright.

    Dioscorus; good points. But how to exert pressure?

  9. I think the pressure needs to come from people like you, and other bloggers and intellectuals, by keeping talking about the issue.

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