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England and the Printing Press: A Subject Guide

William Caxton (c. 1422–1491) brought the first printing press to England in the late 1470s. This guide provides resources for researching early English printers and imprints from the arrival of Caxton to the beginning of the 16th century.


John W. Alexander, artist. Printing Press mural in Evolution of the Book series, by John W. Alexander. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.. mural c1896; photographed 1990. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The Rare Book & Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress holds an important collection of early English imprints with a particular strength in English printing before 1501. These imprints, known as incunabula, are especially scarce, historically precious, and rare to find in North American institutions.

This scarcity is partly the consequence of geography. Compared to other European principalities, England was not quick to begin printing after Johann Gutenberg made hand-press printing famous in Europe by printing the Gutenberg Bible around 1455. Separated from Continental Europe by the English Channel, England's book market was relatively small when compared with large, centrally-located markets like Paris, France. It was not until 1475 that William Caxton established the first printing office in the British Isles within the precinct of Westminster Abbey. The Rare Book & Special Collections Division has more than 40 English incunabula, and more than 1,500 items printed in England before 1640.

This subject guide highlights the Division's robust holdings of fifteenth and sixteenth-century English printing: it offers examples of primary source collection material, suggestions for supporting secondary literature, and includes brief historical sketches for a selection of famous English printers from the period. Not only does this guide include print resources for this subject, but it also provides links to a substantial number of influential electronic resources in the form of bibliographies, glossaries, full-text databases, and specialized dictionaries and encyclopedia. Researchers are encouraged to review the search tips for working with pre-modern and early-modern material, and to make use of the Rare Book & Special Collections Division's Ask-A-Librarian resource if further questions arise.

Because the Library of Congress is such a large repository, researchers may find materials in other Divisions that complement the resources available in the Rare Book & Special Collections Division (RBSCD). Other Reading Rooms with pre-modern and early modern English material include the following:

Before consulting material in person, researchers are encouraged to contact the reference staff in the respective custodial Division to insure that the desired material is onsite and available for viewing.

About the Rare Book & Special Collections Reading Room

The unique materials of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, now totaling over 1 million items, include books, broadsides, pamphlets, theater playbills, prints, posters, photographs, and medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. At the center is Thomas Jefferson's book collection, which was sold to Congress in 1815. The Rare Book & Special Collections Reading Room is modeled after Philadelphia's Independence Hall. This room is home to the divisional catalogs, reference collection, and reference staff. Collections are stored in temperature and humidity controlled vaults.