Magdalene College and MEI

To continue our special series of incunabula-themed blog posts, Magdalene College is pleased to announce the completion of a project to add its collection of Pepys and Old Library incunabula to the Material Evidence in Incunabula (MEI) database.

Material Evidence in Incunabula, or MEI, is a publicly-available online database that enables users to search for information about the material evidence of 15th-century printed books. Maintained by the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL), it draws on research conducted by a growing global network of participating libraries, including UK libraries such as the British Library; the National Library of Scotland; the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and Cambridge University Library into the provenance and copy-specific evidence of their collections.

MEI image 1 - PL 1796 title page

 Title page, taken from PL 1796 [The historye of Reynart the foxe (Westminster: William Caxton, c.1489)], with the name “John Awdeley” in manuscript.

Work by Magdalene College Library staff to catalogue Pepys and Old Library incunabula onto the MEI database began in the early spring of 2019, with a view to enhancing existing data about the material and provenance history of the collections. Following ten months of careful research, the project was completed in November and users can now search for information concerning the material evidence of all of our incunabula via the MEI interface.


But what exactly do we mean by ‘material evidence’ and why is it important?

Material evidence refers to certain forms of data that are particular to an individual copy of a text. Whereas the bibliographical records that appear on the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC) – to which MEI is linked – provide uniform details about an edition of a work, the copy-specific records in MEI present unique information about the copy of the text within the holding institution. For instance, MEI records are used to document evidence such as manuscript notes, binding, decoration, bookplates and other marks of ownership.

Material evidence is important to researchers who are interested in understanding how copies of texts have been historically read and interpreted. Annotations, doodles, marginal notes and the marking of passages all reflect particular forms of engagement and the reception of texts across time. Recording the material evidence of collections also enables researchers to trace the provenance of texts and their movement across geographical locations. Material evidence can tell us a lot about patterns of book ownership, for example, and about the historical nature of the book trade. Named entries in the MEI record can be linked to a separate database, entitled Owners of Incunabula, which contains biographical information about individuals and organisations associated with the item, allowing us to make connections and reconstitute disparate collections across different holdings institutions. It is the documentation of this kind of data which helps to make MEI such a valuable resource.

MEI image 2 - PL 1254(6) p.5

 PL 1254(6), p.5 [The foundation of the Chapel of Walsingham (London: Richard Pynson, c.1496)], with manuscript doodle.

It is hoped that the information brought to light during the course of the College’s MEI project will benefit to future researchers interested in the material evidence of texts, and that our participation in the MEI initiative will increase understanding of how the College’s incunabula were used and experienced by readers in the past.

To search the MEI database, please visit:

To view the Owners of Incunabula database, see:

For a complete list of participating libraries, visit:

By Ellie Swire

Libraries Assistant and Invigilator

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