Pathfinder Repository


History of Books and Printing

This Pathfinder is no longer being actively maintained by ipl.


This pathfinder provides a general introduction to print resources, Internet resources, and associations relating to the history of books and printing. By nature this a very broad field, spanning many differing time periods and book forms. This is, therefore, intended primarily as a starting point for research in aspects of book history from the beginnings of writing through the present, and is not to be considered indicative of the full range of information available on any given aspect. Resources are also provided for those interested in finding out about their own rare or antiquated books or personal book collecting on the Internet.

Print Resources

There are many good print resources on the history of books and printing, including both general surveys and specialized works regarding such topics as medieval manuscripts, early printed books, nineteenth-century works, and so forth.

Searching and Call Numbers

When searching library catalogs, use the following Library of Congress subject headings:

  • Authors and Publishers
  • Authors and Readers
  • Authorship-History
  • Bibliography-History
  • Book Industries and Trade—History
  • Books and Reading—History
  • Illumination of Books and Manuscripts
  • Libraries-History
  • Literacy-History
  • Literature Publishing-History
  • Literature and Society-History
  • Manuscripts-History
  • Printing-History
  • Publishers and Publishing- History
  • Scriptoria-History
  • Writing-History

In libraries where books are shelved according to Library of Congress call numbers, books relating to aspects of book history will generally be within Z4-Z659, ND2889-ND3416, and NE1-NE3002. Dewey Decimal call numbers are difficult to pin down for this subject area; they may begin with 002 (The book), 070 (News media, journalism, publishing), 090 (Manuscripts and rare books), 655 (unassigned), 686 (Printing and related activities), 745 (Decorative arts), or the 800s (Literature of specific regions).

Another searching tool to keep in mind is the use of online bookstores such as Amazon.com. A search of their bookstore site for “history of books and printing,” or “illuminated manuscripts,” for example, brings up hundreds of books, often with descriptions, reviews, and recommendations for other books on similar topics.

Recommended Books

A very good bibliography of general surveys, as well as specialized topics such as antiquity, the medieval period, and the invention and spread of printing, has been compiled by the New York Public Library, and is available online:

NYPL Bibliography of Print Resources on the History of Books and Printing (http://www.nypl.org/research/chss/grd/resguides/bookhist/)

Recommended surveys for one just getting started include:

  • Scribes, Scripts, and Books: The Book Arts from Antiquity to the Renaissance by Leila Avrin (Chicago: American Library Association, 1991)
  • A Gentle Madness : Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books by Nicholas A. Basbanes (New York: Henry Holt, 1995, reprinted 1999)
  • The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800 (Verso Classics, 10) by Lucien Febvre, et al (New York: Verso, 1997, reprinted 1998 and 1999)
  • The Evolution of the Book by Frederick Kilgour (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998)
  • The Book: The Story of Printing and Bookmaking by Douglas C. McMurtrie (New York: Oxford University Press: 1943)
  • The Smithsonian Book of Books by Michael Olmert (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 1992)

Internet Resources


Daniel Traister’s Home Page—History of Books and Printing (http://www.english.upenn.edu/~traister/hbp.html)
This is an extremely comprehensive directory of Internet sites relating to the history of books and printing, part of the personal web site of Daniel Traister, Head of the University of Pennsylvania’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Yahoo Directory: History of Books and Printing (http://dir.yahoo.com/Arts/Humanities/Literature/History_of_Books_and_Printing)
Yahoo’s directory of links.


“Manuscripts, Books, and Maps: The Printing Press and a Changing World”
An essay by Bruce Jones with many accompanying images.

Book History Timetable (http://www.xs4all.nl/~knops/timetab.html)
A general outline of key people, places and events in book history from 3500 B.C. to 1997, maintained by Cor Knops.

Personal Collecting

Your Old Books (http://www.rbms.info/yob.shtml)
A general guide to personal collections, from the Rare Book and Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries.

About Directory: Book Collecting (http://collectbooks.about.com/)
A comprehensive directory of links and resources relating to personal book collecting, including topics such as appraisal, book care, buying and selling books online, a glossary of book collecting terms, guides to collecting specific genres, and a beginner’s guide to book collecting.

If you are searching for a particular book, you can search and shop from many used and rare book dealers online at http://www.addall.com/, http://www.alibris.com/, or http://www.bibliofind.com/

Online Exhibits

Treasures from Europe’s National Libraries (http://portico.bl.uk/gabriel/treasures/entree.html)
This is an online exhibit presented by the Conference of European National Librarians, including images of rare and precious books, illuminated manuscripts, bookbindings, drawings, prints and decorated papers from all over Europe, going as far back as the 8th century. Online tours are available by document type and topic, or books may be browsed by National Library of their origin, title, creator, or creation date.


The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing maintains a listserv dedicated to the discussion of issues relating to the history of the printed word. Subscription information and a searchable archives of past postings are available at http://www.indiana.edu/~sharp/sharp-l.html

The Rare Book and Manuscripts Section of the American Library Association maintains a listserv for discussion of issues relating to rare book and manuscript librarianship. In addition to librarians, students, scholars, and rare book dealers are members, and discussion often pertains to issues of book history in general. Subscription information and a searchable archives of past postings are available at http://palimpsest.stanford.edu/byform/mailing-lists/exlibris/


The American Printing History Association (APHA) (http://www.printinghistory.org/)
“The American Printing History Association was founded in 1974 to encourage the study of printing history and its related arts and skills, including calligraphy, typefounding, typography, papermaking, bookbinding, illustration, and publishing. APHA is especially, but by no means exclusively, interested in American printing history.” This site includes information on APHA publications, regional chapters, activities, and upcoming events, as well as membership information and selected articles from their journal, Printing History.

The Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (http://abaa.org/)
This site provides information about the ABAA and its newsletter, as well as locating and contacting member booksellers, online bookseller catalogs, ABAA book fairs, and online resources on book collecting.

The International Book Collectors Association (http://www.rarebooks.org/)
This site is less about the organization than it is a collection of links to information about certain genres of book collecting, suggested reference books, and a wealth of both print and online resources on preservation, appraisal, and buying and selling of rare books.

The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing— SHARPWeb (http://www.sharpweb.org/)
“The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing was created in 1991 to provide a global network for book historians, who until then had usually worked in isolation. SHARP now has about 1000 members in over 20 countries, including professors of literature, historians, librarians,publishing professionals, sociologists, bibliophiles, classicists, booksellers, art historians, reading instructors, and independent scholars.” This site includes information about membership, conferences, activities, and publications, including their journal, Book History.

This pathfinder created by Riva Pollard