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Apr 25 2013

The Oldest Complete Printed Work at NCSU

contributed by Beth Debold.

It is important to remember that rare books, or any rare material, are never valuable solely due to their age. However, many librarians, researchers, and other library users seem to have a special yen for the oldest items. I thought I might share NCSU’s oldest complete printed item with you today.

NCSU has several very old rare books. The oldest item I have come across is not a printed work at all, but rather a delicate leaf from a 14th century manuscript discussing personal wealth and gain among medieval clergy. The next oldest item is an excerpt from Konrad von Megenberg’s Das Buch der Natur from the Friedrich F. Tippmann Entomological Collection, printed in 1482. However, since NCSU does not possess a complete copy of that work, I decided to discuss NCSU’s oldest and (as far as it is possible to tell) complete rare book: Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos, or Quadripartitum, a second century Greek text on astrology.

Tetrabiblios, 1484

Printed by Erhard Ratdolt (a Venetian printer of German origins) in 1484, NCSU’s copy remains in beautiful condition. It is the first printed edition of the Latin translation of the Tetrabiblos from the Greek, and is only thirty-four years younger than the first item printed using moveable type. It is an excellent example of how the production and consumption of important texts changed dramatically leading up to the Renaissance, as books became much more accessible both in terms of quantity and readability.

The copy here at D.H. Hill has another interesting trait—it was rebound in 1902 by the influential British bookbinder Katharine Adams. One of the most notable female bookbinders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Adams began binding professionally in the 1890s and opened her own bindery in the small town of Broadway in the Cotswolds in 1901. It is possible that this book was rebound there, in her Eadburgh Bindery.

Katharine Adams, binding signature, 1902

The work is exquisitely but simply rendered in soft sheepskin and gold tooling. She included her personally designed signature, consisting of the initials “K A” enclosing a catherine wheel, tooled on the inside bottom edge of the back cover. This work also has a great many notes and autographs from previous owners in the margins, possibly dating back to contemporary with the printing date.

This eldest complete work here at NCSU is a beautiful example of the history of printing, early astrology, women’s history, the history of bookbinding, and the history of book ownership all in one. For a digital version of the text, take a look at this copy in Spain’s Virtual Library of Bibliographical Heritage.

To see this work, please contact the Special Collections Research Center.


Burnett, Charles. (n.d.) Ptolemy, Quadripartitum. Retrieved from

Griffiths, Jane. (n.d.) Adams, Katharine. In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved from