One of the oldest English-language books in the world is now sitting on the shelves of the Schulich-Woolf Rare Book Collection at Queen’s University.
The university recently acquired a 1482 copy of William Caxton’s Polycronicon – a book so rare that only about 50 copies, in any condition, are known to exist.
Distinguished Canadian philanthropist and entrepreneur Seymour Schulich and Queen’s University Principal Daniel Woolf recently partnered to gift their personal collections of rare books to Queen’s. In recognition of their generosity and vision, the university has established the Schulich-Woolf Rare Book Collection, which resides in Douglas Library, and combines more than 400 volumes from the personal collections of Mr. Schulich and Principal Woolf.
“Acquiring a Caxton will help us achieve our goal of building one of the best English rare books collections in Canada,” says Mr. Schulich, who also donated a $2-million gift to the university toward the growth and preservation of the collection.
The 1482 Caxton adds to the library’s collection of incunabula – books from the earliest period of printing (1455-1500). It allows Queen’s students and scholars a unique opportunity to have first-hand access to a Caxton to research a variety of topics: the history of books and printing; medieval and English history; and the history of the English language.
“This 535-year-old copy of Polycronicon is the crown jewel of the collection,” says Principal Woolf (Artsci'80). “I am thrilled that students and scholars at Queen’s can now study first-hand a book of such historical significance.”
The main strength of the Schulich-Woolf Rare Book Collection is British history and culture of the 16th through 18th centuries. Polycronicon – which is a chronicle of British and universal history – is a great fit for the collection. This collection will serve to enrich the teaching and learning experience at Queen’s and support research activity across the broader academic community.
“We are so pleased to be able to expand on this important rare book collection and provide our community with a unique glimpse into the past,” says Martha Whitehead, Vice-Provost and University Librarian. “The flow of ideas and information that we champion in the library depends as much on these print artifacts as on the digital resources we manage and preserve.”
William Caxton (1422-1491) was one of the pioneers of printing and his books are rare and valuable. He was the first printer in England and the first to print a book in the English language.
“When you examine the book, many pages have hand-written notes on the sides,” says Alvan Bregman, Curator of the Schulich-Woolf Rare Book Collection. “Usually we don’t want to add any new markings in our books, but it is interesting to see what 16th and 17th century readers have written. We want to see the natural use of books, so this is a great additional feature.”
Caxton’s Polycronicon (1482) is on public display at W.D. Jordan Rare Books and Special Collections, Douglas Library at Queen’s University.
Visit the Queen's University Library Facebook page to see footage of the Caxton being unpackaged.