ERC 10th Anniversary Week: The 15cBOOKTRADE

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The 15cBOOKTRADE is re-assessing the impact of the 15th-century printing revolution on  European society using the thousands of surviving books as evidence; that is, with a bottom up approach. A lot has been written on this seminal period of our history, but based on too little evidence, too many assumptions and opinions. Half a million books printed in the 15th century survive to this day, they bear evidence of trade, purchasing and reading habits (see picture): with the support of technology and the creation of a large international network of collaborating libraries and scholars, we are gathering and making searchable thousands of high quality data: we transform material evidence into historical evidence. This is very sophisticated ‘big data’ on the market and use of the new printed books throughout Europe, and the spread of knowledge and ideas they made possible on unprecedented scale. Does it sound familiar?

The resonance with the present is too important to be left to guesswork and poor data. We have created a digital structure capable of handling all surviving evidence. We are also the first to apply scientific visualisation to the evidence of use: we can track the movement in time and space of each book, over its 500 years of existence, and of course combine that with the identification of its users: male, female, private, istitutional, religious, lay, and by profession. We can visualise the formation and dispersal of libraries, and in the process capture the changing value of cultural heritage. The results of these five years of research will be shared with the larger public in an innovative exhibition in Venice in September 2018.

As a consolidator grant applicant I was stuck in my mid-career position: already with a considerable research track record and management experience (I was, and still am, the Secretary of the Consortium of European Research Libraries) but without a permanent position in the UK, I was not eligible to apply to a number of national funding bodies; the emphasis on excellence alone of the ERC made all the difference. Reading the eight positive assessments, from the international and interdisciplinary ERC Evaluation Panel as well as the external specialist advisors, remains one of the most rewarding moments of my career: the proposal, its wide-ranging implications for a number of disciplines, and my research were completely understood and enthusiastically supported.

- Dr Christina Dondi

PI ERC Project 15cBOOKTRADE, 2014-2019