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Collections on the move: Rare books and incunabula - making our collection visible

24 Feb 2017

Sarah Kennedy

A major cataloguing project is now complete in the Royal College of Surgeons of England Library. The aim of the project was to ensure that the vast majority of Library collections will finally be catalogued in our library management system and accessible to all users of SurgiCat+, our integrated online public access catalogue (OPAC).

There are a number of benefits to the project from both a collections management perspective and from the perspective of potential users. The project ensured that each item in the collections has a unique identifier, making finding and retrieving items easier and more efficient. It also makes stock-checking a much simpler task. By having all our items available on the online catalogue, users and researchers have the opportunity to search for the items they need from any device with web access.

Better access to our collections is based on as much information being available about the content of the collections as possible. Twelve percent of the collection is unique to the RCS. This project will provide users with a much better understanding of the extent of our collections and the type of material they are able to access

In addition to the benefits of efficient retrieval and house-keeping, the project will play a major part in our ability to move our print collection to temporary new accommodation while the Lincoln’s Inn Fields building is redeveloped. The unique identifier will enable each item to be tracked by staff throughout its journey during moves in and out of the building, ensuring staff will always know where a book is at any point.

In my personal opinion, the most exciting aspect of the project is that the oldest and rarest books in the College have now been added to the catalogue. These books include one of the very first books recorded as being purchased for the library, The anatomy of the horse by George Stubbs, which was published in 1766. Another notable addition is the seminal work by Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, which was published in 1543. De fabrica, which features beautifully detailed engravings of different parts of the body, is considered one of the most important anatomical works in history.

Vesalius: De humani corporis fabrica libri septemStubbs: Anatomy of a Horse

Our early printed books, or incunabula, have also been added. These precious books are ones which were printed around 1500 and represent the earliest form of printing. With the earliest of our items dating as far back as the 1470s. Many of these books are quite rare given their age and the fact that as the printing process was slower less copies could be produced. In some of these items you will find beautifully hand-coloured illuminated lettering and rubrication, a practice continued from the manuscript tradition. Where possible we have tried to capture information about unique aspects of the books, such as illuminations or interesting bindings, in the catalogue records.

Incunabula illuminationIt has been a real pleasure to browse through these old, rare volumes while cataloguing them. If you would like to see what we have in the collection, you can visit SurgiCat+, where you can also view the Museums and Archives collections.

The project to complete the cataloguing of the Royal College of Surgeons of England’s printed collection has been made possible by grants received from the Wellcome Trust Research Resources in Medical History scheme.

We will be posting more stories about our progress in the coming months, so look out for the tagline ‘Collections on the move’. Please get in touch if you have any questions or leave us a comment. You can also find our more about the future of the Lincoln’s Inn Fields buildings.

Sarah Kennedy, former Library Project Cataloguer

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