The British Library Incunabla Short Title Catalogue

About the Catalogue

An Introduction to ISTC

The Incunabula Short-Title Catalogue (ISTC) is an international database of fifteenth-century printing which has been in development at the British Library since 1980. As well as the British Library, major contributors to ISTC include the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich; the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Rome; the Bibliographical Society of America, the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague; and the Bibliothèque Royal Albert Ier, Brussels.

ISTC was first conceived by Lotte Hellinga of the British Library, putting to use the methods devised for the Library's machine-readable Eighteenth-Century Short Title Catalogue of English books (ESTC) in the late 1970s. If the methods were those of ESTC, the direct model and initial source was the union catalogue of incunabula in North America. By permission of the Bibliographical Society of America, Frederick R. Goff's Incunabula in American Libraries: A Third Census, revised edition, 1973, was keyboarded at the British Library in 1980. Goff's consistent demarcation of the various classes of information about incunabula lent the Census to ready adaptation to database form. All subsequent work on the file has followed the Goff style of short-title cataloguing, though the titles themselves have in many cases been expanded to give a fuller view of a book's contents.

ISTC Records

In line with Goff's practice, each ISTC record represents a single edition with variants within an edition being accommodated by notes within the record. The AUTHOR, TITLE, IMPRINT and FORMAT are distributed into discrete fields for easy retrieval in machine searching. As far as possible everything is reduced to a uniform and standard form, whatever the wording of the original. The work published as "OMNIA OPERA ANGELI Politiani", for example, and signed "Venetiis in aedibus Aldi Romani mense Iulio M. IID." is rendered as:

  • Author:   Politianus, Angelus
  • Title:   Opera
  • Imprint:   Venice: Aldus Manutius, Romanus, July 1498

In this way, the same entity should always appear in the same form, allowing retrieval in a single step. Politianus and Aldus always appear thus, whatever language the work in hand may have been printed in. If an author or printer has a known Latin name, that is generally preferred to vernacular forms. For example, ISTC always refers to Johannes de Sacro Busto (not Joannes de Sacrobosco or John Holywood), and to Johannes de Turrecremata (not Juan de Torquemada). ISTC does not usually make cross-reference to alternative names unless they are radically divergent. There is also an element of convention in the names assigned to authors and printers deriving from the traditional usage of incunable bibliographies since Panzer and Hain are codified in Goff (a list of variant name forms is found at the end of Goff's Census.)

The forms employed by ISTC are most easily established by browsing on the field name to show the index of words and entries. For complete coverage, it is always advisable to truncate with a hash mark # when the word may be inflected: e.g. "Cicero#" finds all Cicero, Ciceronem, Ciceronis, Ciceroni. This is especially useful in searching titles, for example, where additional works by or on writers other than the main author are found (e.g. Quaestiones super Physicam Aristotelis, Interpretatio in Vergilii Aeneida).


Printing towns are always given in the English form (e.g. Antwerp, Nuremberg, Seville, Venice). For present-day locations of copies such towns are given in their local form (e.g. Antwerpen, Nürnberg, Sevilla, Venezia). The imprint field is divided into its constituents of place, printer and/or publisher (these given in the form "[printer] X, for [publisher] Y": "Bonetus Locatellus, for Octavianus Scotus"), and date, each separately searchable. All information in the imprint not directly supplied by the book is given between square brackets. Note that ISTC differs from the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke in accepting a printer's device as a direct statement of his responsibility for the edition, unless there is special reason to think otherwise. Where no definite printer assignation can be made, the formula "" [with stops and no space] is used, for "no printer", which can be searched for. ISTC often records divergent assignations of place, printer or date made by different catalogues, so as not to close off researchers approaching from any direction. The imprint favoured by ISTC is always given first, followed by any others worth mentioning under the rubric: "Also recorded as:".

Sometimes it is preferable to accept a degree of uncertainty about an unsigned edition (in the worst case "Unassigned,, undated") to a demonstrably false attribution.


Dates printed in colophons in German style by saints' days or according to the Roman system of Kalends, Nones and Ides are uniformly reduced to the present-day style of day, month and year. Months are abbreviated to the first three letters of the English name of the month, except "June" and "July" in full, and "Sept". In printing towns where the year-number commonly changed on a day other than 1 January, such as Venice (1 March), Florence (25 March), and Paris (Easter), year dates from the early part of the year are often expressed in such forms as 1491/92, 1499/1500. Occasionally a printer can be shown to have used both styles of dating, common or local, indifferently, and decision is accordingly uncertain unless documentary or physical evidence (from types or woodcuts) is available. On rare occasions the date as printed is impossible in any system.

ISTC Fields

To these basic elements of description, ISTC adds certain obligatory fields: a control number (which enables the file to be sorted alphabetically), the language in which the work is printed, the standardized year of printing, the bibliographical format, and a set of references to published catalogues and bibliographies.


This "Bibliography" field is often very extensive, but should always have at least one such reference to a printed description, failing which the work is said to be "unrecorded". The field typically begins with a Hain reference (or Hain-Copinger, Hain-Reichling, Copinger-Reichling and other permutations of Hain and his supplementers), when there is one, and ends with a reference to the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke, again when appropriate (i.e for authors/titles preceding H in the alphabet). In between there is in general a move from special bibliographies to national and local catalogues grouped by countries. The works cited by abbreviations (e.g. H for Hain, GW for the Gesamtkatalog) are expanded with full publication details immediately by clicking the EXPAND REFERENCES.

Year of Printing

Because of the variety of expressions of date of printing (e.g., "[14]78", "not before Aug. 1479", "between Apr. 1484 and 1486", "15 Feb. 1499/1500", "after 1500"), ISTC uses a separate field for the standardized year of printing. The dates just quoted are standardized as 1478, 1479, 1484-86, 1500, and 1501. These year-codes are not displayed but are drawn upon in searches involving date-ranging and sorting. They also enable rough statistical work to be undertaken, though owing to the large quantity of undated and not closely datable incunabula, the results of such enquiries are always likely to be in varying degrees imprecise. Undated books where there is not enough evidence to hand even to estimate a date are said to be "undated", and these are not coded for date-ranging purposes.


The fields mentioned above are the minimum that make up any record. There are optional fields which record details of production -- known variants in setting up or the presence of woodcuts, for example, or the grounds on which the edition is assigned a date. Here also is placed further specification of imprint dates where a multi-part work has several colophons, in the form "In four parts, dated I) 1 Sept. 1490; II) 21 Sept. 1490; III) undated; IV) 6 Oct. 1490". In such a case the Date of Publication field (as well as the standardized Year of Printing field) reads simply "1490".

Other notes typically deal with the assignment of a work to a particular author and may refer to extended discussions of these often controversial matters. ISTC tends to keep works under their traditional headings, that is, assigned to the author to whom the book itself or inveterate tradition ascribes the work, where users may expect to look for it, and to add in a note the correct authorship as established or hypothesized by modern scholarship. Very often a work ascribed to e.g. Aquinas or Bonaventure will be simply marked as "(Pseudo-)". Both fields are searchable in the main Search Screen under "Notes".

Lost or Destroyed Works

The ISTC is in principle a register of extant incunabula. Very occasionally a book known to have been destroyed in recent times (usually through war or fire) is accorded an entry when its existence is vouched for by detailed description or photographic evidence. There are many books described at greater or lesser length in previous centuries which are no longer, or never were, extant.

Locations - USA

A large number of US (and the few Mexican and Canadian) locations were taken over from Goff's Census, locations which have been undergoing systematic revision since 1989. It should be noted that Goff included many copies in possession of booksellers and in private hands, the former within square brackets and the latter placed at the end of his lists, which otherwise run alphabetically according to his location codes. These are listed with their expansions in "North American location codes" in the Help file. For the time being Goff's codes are retained and are necessary for searching throughout the US field, although the library name will display in its expanded form. In some cases compelling reasons have made a new code advisable. For technical reasons Goff's ampersand has been changed to "and": e.g. William and Mary College, W&MCL to Goff, has become WandMCL. Booksellers codes, within square brackets at the head of the "North American location codes" list, have been deleted except where they stand for the only copy ever to have been recorded in North America, or afford evidence in a particular copy of a date, of early rubrication or ownership for instance, which applies to the whole edition. The record of private owners has remained essentially untouched since the Census and is now for the most part information of purely historical interest. Private owners have been deleted entirely when their collections are known to have gone en bloc to a public institution. Other dispersed collections, sometimes very important, have been allowed to remain until the copies of which they were formed have resurfaced. Some books which have definitely left the United States are simply recorded in their new locations. In addition to such émigrés there are books which never were in the USA, such as those recorded in Canada and Mexico and for the American School of Classical Studies in Athens (the Gennadius Library). These copies are found now in Other Locations and Other European Locations, two fields which serve for the recording of all copies in countries without their own national field. This accounts for the fact that there are more than 100 Goff entries without an American copy (the result of the search: "Goff" in the Bibliography field and "not USA" in the Locations field). Conversely, owing to the extensive updating of North American locations there are more than 400 editions now recorded in the USA which are not in Goff.

Recording of Incunabula

Goff recorded about 12,900 editions, fewer than half those now in ISTC. The remainder were accumulated by work not on bibliographies but on records of collections. As ISTC approaches completion of the basic record of fifteenth-century printing it has sometimes taken over from more general bibliographies entries for well attested books without their locations. In most cases the locations of copies are known but await systematic entry by inclusion in ongoing national censuses (in Germany particularly) or in forthcoming catalogues (e.g. that of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris).

After the entry of the American Census, the work of broadening the ISTC was first taken forward by entering all books represented in the British Library and in the Italian union catalogue, Indice generale degli incunaboli delle biblioteche d'Italia (IGI).

The British Library Collection

The British Library's collection is unsurpassed in its coverage of the whole range of fifteenth-century printing and the eleven-volume Catalogue of Books Printed in the XVth Century now in the British Museum [British Library], (BMC), is unsurpassed as a guide to the field of study. There are besides in the British Library some 700 books not yet catalogued in supplements to the older volumes, as well as two volumes still to come (for English and Hebrew incunabula). The shelfmarks of BL copies are kept in a separate field in ISTC, chiefly for editorial and housekeeping purposes at the Library. In this publication they have been placed separately at the head of the Locations British Isles field, followed quite often by notes within parentheses on the copy or copies recorded.

Copy Notes

Elsewhere in ISTC such information is offered very sparingly, being effectively confined to notices of imperfection such as the parts of a multi-volume set which are present, e.g. "(II, IV-V)", or within a single volume "(imperfect)", "(wanting a1)", "(wanting 3 ff.)". In the US field, following Goff's practice, these details are given in the form "(-)", (-a1)" "(-3ff.)". The only other standard copy-particular information concerns copies printed on vellum (expressed as "vell" or "vellum").

Locations - The British Isles

The rest of the British Isles field follows any British Library copy, the result of many years' work aimed at drawing up a census of incunabula in Britain and Ireland. A substantial part of this work was done by Dennis Rhodes of the British Library and his helpers before the inception of ISTC, later augmented by direct entry of the holdings of the University Library at Cambridge, the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the John Rylands University Library at Manchester and many other smaller collections. The names of the towns where the libraries are located are placed in alphabetical order (after any London, British Library copies, which always stand first). Copies in Ireland, chiefly those in Dublin, stand at the end of this field.

Locations - Europe

This information, like all other information in the database, is subject to change as new copies are recorded, or new facts about old copies. This applies also and especially to the Italian location field where the data derived, with permission, from the six volumes of IGI, has been undergoing a thorough overhaul by colleagues based at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Rome, Dott.ssa Giuliana Sciascia and Dott. Pasqualino Avigliano. The revision of the Italian census within ISTC has brought to light wholly unknown editions as well as a mass of copies newly recorded in Italy. Copies in the Vatican Library (of some 5100 editions) are entered at the end of the Italian field, as "Vaticano BAV".

Whereas Italy has long had a good short-title census in print, Germany, the country which houses more copies of incunabula than any other, has never before had one. With the aid of funds of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, a German census is in course of compilation at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich. Curators there, in particular Frau Gertrud Friedl, have since 1989 used the German location field of ISTC in a PC-installation of the database to register the results of an extensive survey of the rich German collections, pre-eminently that of Munich BSB itself. German locations are commonly entered in the style of the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke; against this, individual libraries and even the towns in which they are located have sometimes undergone changes of name, and the form now accepted by the library in question is that used in ISTC. The fullest list of these (and all other) holding libraries is found at the beginning of GW volume VIII. Note, in searching for German locations in particular, that words including characters with umlauts can be searched by using the ASCII-code for that character (e.g. ALT + 129 for ü).

Other location fields are reserved for The Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Spain and Portugal (Iberia) together (Portuguese copies following the Spanish).

The content of these fields derives from national union catalogues, or in the case of France from the continuing series of regional catalogues and that of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, in all cases with amendments and updating.

Locations - Other European - Other

As explained above, two more fields for Other European Locations and Other Locations embrace areas not covered by national locations fields, the first generally for Scandinavia, Switzerland, Eastern European and Russian collections, the second for all others (most often Canada, Australasia and Japan, as well as a few South American, African and Asian holdings). With a few exceptions, place names follow the local style (Antwerpen, Nürnberg, Sevilla, Venezia, etc.). The exceptions which are kept under English names are Copenhagen, The Hague, Moscow, Prague, St Petersburg, Vienna, Warsaw.

Naming Conventions

The distinctions of naming conventions should help to preserve the fundamental distinction between present-day location of copies (e.g. Plzen) and original printing towns (Pilsen). The towns where the books were printed are further gathered for convenience into printing areas. These are cultural regions essentially defined by the language spoken rather than current or past political boundaries: Strassburg and Basel in Germany, for example. Choosing COUNTRY OF PUBLICATION on the Advanced Search window brings up a list of these areas (British Isles, France, Germany etc.). It is thus possible to select Italy, giving a number for all Italian fifteenth-century editions, or to select or exclude particular towns, as for example all Italian printing except Venice, Florence and Rome, or only Venice, Florence and Rome.

ISTC - a register of all extant editions

A final word on what ISTC offers. It should be remembered that in all cases what is found is the number of editions answering the search term, since the unit of an ISTC record is an edition and not a copy. ISTC cannot itself count the copies of a book registered within each record, which may be several hundred in the case of a popular book like the Nuremberg Chronicle. That operation must be done by hand, when particular records are selected. The numbers of copies recorded in any case changes from month to month as the underlying database is updated. What should remain fairly stable are the numbers of editions and the proportions between them of different dates, from different countries, in different formats, and so on. The editors estimate that more than 90% of all fifteenth-century printing is now recorded in the database. The final figure, is likely to be in the region of 28,000 editions. In common with all incunable catalogues we record a considerable number of books -- currently more than 1500 -- once but no longer reckoned to be incunabula. These of cpurse can be excluded by using the date options on the Advanced Search screen.