The Latin word incunabulum (plural incunabula, and sometimes anglicized as incunable) literally means cradle, and more loosely refers to the infancy, birthplace or origin of something. It is most often used in reference to early printed books, and in this sense an incunabulum is further defined even more specifically as being a book printed using moveable type prior to the year 1501AD.

Before the invention of printing using moveable type, books were copied by hand, word for word, letter by letter, by scribes, generally onto parchment or vellum. Obviously, this was an extremely laborious and time-consuming method, and the level of production was minimal -- not to mention the potential for errors during transcription. Later, the method of block printing was devised (i.e. in Europe, as this method had been used for centuries in the Orient) wherein the entire text for a page was cut into wood and thus printed, although even this method was rather labour-intensive as well. However, great care was often undertaken in the reproduction of books in both of these ways, and the pages were often subsequently "illuminated" with wonderful illustrations and ornaments. Some of the most beautiful books ever made come from the time before the invention of printing with moveable type, and the first books which were printed using this latter method endeavoured to emulate that beauty and form.

There are still many, many contemporary artisans who practice hand-bookbinding in a manner not all that dissimilar to the methods used by Gutenberg, and even the invention of digital media has not changed that in many respects. Although virtually anyone with a computer and word processing software can now typeset documents easily and effectively without having to resort the laborious process of sorting and inserting individual letters into a press, still the endeavour of cutting and folding the papers, hand-sewing the final signatures, gluing the spine and completing one's creation complete with gold-foil decoration and trim and securely bound in leather is no simple task and requires not hours or even days of practice, but many years of apprenticeship before one can truly call oneself a master of the art.

On the other hand, some might argue that modern methods of printing have been a blessing with regard to readability of text (as opposed to, say, blackletter type), more consistency and user-friendly, portable formats, etc., not to mention the way in which modern technology and computers have increased the speed of publishing to the point that what might have taken Gutenberg and his contemporaries an entire year to print can now be done in a day, or even just a few hours. Yet, there's something to be said for all those "old books", something far greater than just looking upon them as mere stepping stones to what our great publishing industry has become today. Other than that minority of publishers who still value and practice the art of hand-bookbinding, quite simply they just don't make them like they used to, and that statement is made very much in deference to the true beauty and timelessness of those early works in this art -- for works of art they were indeed, with each book being a genuine reflection of not only the author of the words, but of the paper-maker, the printer and typesetter, the artist who created whatever woodcuts might have been used to illustrate the pages, and the binder who painstakingly sewed, glued, pressed and tooled each and every volume by hand. Nowadays we might browse through bookstores and some flashy cover might catch our eye, we'll pick it up, flip it over, read the blurb on the back and maybe flip a few pages to see if the words contained therein might hold some attraction for us, but to peruse the shelves of an antiquarian bookseller and discover some curious volume is a much more complete experience. It's not only the words on the pages that we might read and find pleasure in, in fact it might not be the words at all! Beyond the meaning of the text that might feed our mind in some way, the type face with which that text is printed can be a feast for the eyes in itself, and often reason enough for the purchase of some quaint volume. And even more it can be an experience for many senses, for one can take great pleasure in the binding itself, or the illustrations, the endpapers, or any other manner in which the work was enhanced and adorned. One can feel something so unique in an old book that is so rarely there in any contemporary mass-produced volume, and even smell the history of every home and every hand that ever cherished it. To hold one of these works in one's hands is so much more than just holding a great string of words printed on numerous pages all glued together at the edge, but rather to hold the very soul and life-blood of all those craftsmen and artisans who lived so many hundreds of years ago.

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Collections of incunabula are held by the

  1. British Library, London
  2. Library of Congress, Washington
  3. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Münich
  4. Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Rome
  5. Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon, Lyon
  6. Bibliothèque Nationale, Brussels
  7. Bodleian Library, Oxford
  8. Consiglio Nazionale delle Richerche, Rome
  9. Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino
  10. Instituto Nacional do Livro, Lisbon
  11. Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague
of which the most famous is the Gutenberg Bible, the first printed book, thus the first incunabula, many copies exist, in various conditions.