Smile Politely

U of I preserves sole surviving book with Project Unica

Valerie Hotchkiss, the director of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, holds the only known copy of a children’s book printed in 1536; photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Hymnals and children’s books don’t last too long, as many book collectors know. They’re used over and over, often by sticky little fingers. “So when the staff at the University of Illinois Rare Book and Manuscript Library found an eight-page unbound copy of the ABCs and common prayers published in 1536 –more than 450 years ago –they immediately ran the title through several international databases to see if any other libraries had a copy. None did.”

This incredible discovery was submitted to Project Unica, a program by the Rare Book and Manuscript Library that saves and shares sole surviving texts. The site already has at least 280 volumes online and more will be shared soon.

“The concept of a unicum is difficult for the average library user to understand, since books, by their very nature, exist in more than one copy. That’s the genius of Gutenberg’s invention, after all,” Hotchkiss said. “But fate and circumstance have sometimes led to the destruction of every copy, save one. And the University of Illinois has quite a number of absolutely unique printed books.” 

Hotchkiss says that, in the future, Project Unica could have over 2,000 texts -available for viewing, free of charge- from Illinois alone.  

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