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Early Rare Books Collection

Identifier: SCA-0035

Scope and Contents Note

This collection contains several early printed books from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Many of the holdings were printed in Italy, mostly in the Manutius workshop of Venice. The rest were printed in The Netherlands, England, Germany, France, Switzerland, and Belgium. Twelve books are in Latin or partly Latin as there are three bilingual items (mostly Latin and Greek) and one (Dionusiou Longinou Peri hupsous, 1694) employs three languages (Latin, Greek, French). In some books there is marginalia but it is often illegible.

Topically, the items range from natural science, religion, poetry, music, and history, to classical literature, medical science, and linguistics. Some of the holdings are considered quite rare. Most notable are: Blancardus’s Anatomie (1691), Plantin’s Promptuarium (1576), Cicero’s Orationes (1582 pocket edition), and Meibomius’s Antiquae Musicae Auctores Septem (1652). All of these are either the only extant originals in the United States or one of the very few.


  • Majority of material found in 1512-1694


While the collection is open for research, staff may occasionally restrict access to specific items on the basis of their current physical condition.


The Early Rare Books Collection is physically owned by the Queens College Libraries. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assignees. The collection is subject to all copyright laws. Queens College assumes no responsibility for the infringement of copyrights held by the original authors, creators, or producers of materials.

Historical Note

The origins of the book reach back about 5000 years to the manufacture and use of papyrus in Egypt. Ancient papyrus manuscripts were produced as scrolls, a format that prevailed until about the fifth century AD, when the codex format became more popular. Factors that favored the codex over the scroll included the ease of accessing any part of the text quickly, the ability to inscribe on both sides of the page, and increased portability as books became smaller and more compact over time. Eventually, the use of parchment supplanted that of papyrus as a manuscript medium; it was more durable and less costly.

Starting in the 13th century, paper made from cotton pulp was increasingly used in the production of codices. Prior to the advent of machine printing, books were produced or copied by hand and were often, though not always, religious in nature. Ceramic seals and wood blocks, used to stamp designs and hieroglyphics, constitute the early roots of printing in Egypt, Asia, and Europe.

The single most significant event in print history was the 15th century refinement of the 11th century Chinese moveable type invention by Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany. In contrast to the enormous character-based system of writing in Asia, not well suited to moveable type, the European alphabetical system worked well with only 26 symbols. While others in Europe had experimented with this technology, Gutenberg drew on his experience in engraving, gem cutting, and metalwork to improve on both the manufacture of movable type and its utilization via the printing press. His most well-known project, the Gutenberg Bible, was created between 1450 and 1455.

The substance and nature of books evolved relatively quickly after the development of moveable type in Renaissance Europe. Woodcuts and block- printed illustrations appeared in books. Increasingly, books on secular topics became available; subjects such as natural science, medical science, poetry, music, history, and classical works were printed. The range of languages in printed books expanded.

While the earliest printed works came out of Germany, print shops began to appear in other parts of Europe, such as Italy, France, England, and the Netherlands. Paris and Venice became major centers of book production. Aldus Manutius the Elder, a leading figure of his time in printing, publishing and typography, founded the Aldine Press in Venice in the late 1500s. The Aldine Press continued to operate after his death under the administration of successive generations of his family for about a century, and had a role in the emergence of Venice as one of the leading centers of the European book trade. A noteworthy innovation associated with this shop, under Manutius’ administration, was the debut of italic typeface, whose condensed size allowed for the printing of smaller and subsequently cheaper books.

Reduced costs enabled printing in larger batches, enhancing accessibility to these more portable and affordable books. By the 1600s, literacy had increased and large numbers of books were being published. While innovations in book design had declined since the 1500s, advances in engraving led to its use as the predominant form of book illustration.


9 Linear Feet

Language of Materials

Multiple languages


Consisting of materials from the early years of print history, the Early Rare Books Collection is currently comprised of 34 titles from the 16th and 17th centuries. It includes early printed books in a variety of sizes, languages, bindings, and conditions.

Arrangement Note

Items are arranged according to their LOC call numbers.

Early Rare Books Collection Some items in this collection can be found online at the Queens College Print History Digital Archive
Under Revision
Print and machine-readable finding aids prepared by Marina Obsatz, and edited and approved by Alexandra Dolan-Mescal in 2014. Revised by Patricia Reguyal in 2022.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Queens College (New York, N.Y.) Special Collections and Archives Repository

Queens College Library, CUNY
Benjamin Rosenthal Library RO317
65-30 Kissena Boulevard
Flushing 11367 USA us