The Explosion of 15th Century Printing: A Data Visualization

Harvard's metaLAB maps the number and location of printed works in the university's library collections. 

Harvard's metaLAB is "dedicated to exploring and expanding the frontiers of networked culture in the arts and humanities," pursuing interdisciplinary research like this fascinating look at the spread of printing across Europe in the 1400s. Drawing on data from the university's library collections, the animation below maps the number and location of printed works by year. Watch it full screen in HD to see cities light up as the years scroll by in the lower left corner. Matthew Battles, a principal and senior researcher at metaLAB and past Atlantic contributor, describes the research and technology that went into the visualization in an interview below.

The Atlantic: How did you gather the data for this project?

Matthew Battles: The visualization was coded in Processing by our former research fellow Travis Bost. We used Harvard library collections data made available through an API developed by the Library Innovation Lab, a group headed by David Weinberger in the Law Library. This API gave us access to library records, which we searched, downloaded, and cleaned up until we had what we thought was a reasonable representation of editions that actually were printed in early-modern Europe (controlling for latter-day reprints, reissues, scholarly editions, and the like; we also sought to exclude Asian materials and items in manuscript).  

What were some of the challenges?

We discussed some of the bibliographic challenges of sorting these data with Kenneth Carpenter, former director of research resources for Harvard's libraries, and a library historian and bibliographer; there's further refinement to be done. There were problems with the formatting of some of the data we received, which made it impossible to incorporate them. So we can't say that the visualization is a full and accurate reflection of the press coming to life in Europe, nor is it a complete accounting of Harvard's collection of incunables (the term book historians use for editions printed prior to 1500, in the "cradle" of the European press). It's really an initial venture into using these data at large scales to make teachable points about cultural history.

What are your goals for the project?

There are a couple of things we're trying to do with projects like this.  In the first instance, we're trying to understand the history of the norms and values that comprise ever-changing cultures of collecting, not only among libraries, but also other institutions like art collections, natural-history museums, and zoos and arboreta. Secondly, we're exploring the value of treating library catalogue records as objects worthy of collection and curatorial attention in their own right. The data we're using from Harvard form part of a project by David Weinberger and his colleagues to explore the application of open-source principles to libraries—an initiative supporting the broader undertaking of the Digital Public Library of America, in which catalogues from libraries across the US will come together as a vast, open, programmatically-accessible repository of open data. At metaLAB, we're interested in coming up with ways people might use such a meta-collection—and what it might tell us about culture, history, and the role of information in public life.

For more from metaLAB (at) Harvard, visit

Via Robin Sloan