Finding Unica in the RISM Database

Thursday, August 31, 2023

At the recent IAML Congress in Cambridge the issue of unica was addressed in diverse contexts. The British Library, for example, expressed an interest in coordinating its digitization projects with other institutions, including internationally, in the hope that new additions to their digital collections could be unique contributions. When speaking of manuscripts unique contributions are essentially guaranteed, but with printed music knowing whether you may own unica – that is, the single known exemplar of any given edition – should prove extremely useful.

And such knowledge is in fact not simply relevant for digitization projects. At the meeting of the RISM Advisory Council the Library of Congress also wished to learn what printed unica they might have, for these could be prioritized when cataloging their collections for RISM. And rightly so, since it is only the owner of the single surviving exemplar that can provide a detailed description of it. Such situations offer libraries a chance to demonstrate the singular relevance of their collections, and at the same time it implies a sort of moral obligation to provide the wider community with information that only they have access to.

Fortunately, the question whether a library’s collections include unica of early printed music can now be answered with a few clicks, at least with respect to the editions that were included in RISM Series A/I and B/I, which have already been integrated in our online database.

If you visit RISM Online and scroll to the bottom of the Sources page, the filtering options under Holding institutions offer you exactly this kind of close querying. Enter the siglum of the collection you are interested in and click on it from the drop-down menu that appears.

Then under Number of holdings, check the box next to 1.

Note that the preview number of “73,101” has not yet been updated to reflect your search.

Scroll back up to the top of the page and you’ll see some options under Result types. If you toggle Hide source contents then your results will not include any analytic records for individual pieces within an edition.

Now you can click Show all results at the top of the screen. You will then get a list of the institution’s printed editions that exist in only one copy (as far as the RISM database is aware). As examples, you can click on the British Library here or the Library of Congress here to find their unica in RISM.

For most libraries this list will indeed include exclusively unica, namely items belonging to RISM Series A/I (editions containing works by a single composer before 1800) and B/I (printed anthologies of the 16th and 17th centuries), for which all surviving copies were reported when the well-known blue RISM volumes (on the basis of which this information later came into the online database) were in the making. At the same time, libraries that have cataloged for RISM in the past few years and that have also included later printed editions – for example from the 19th century, which were not covered by the A/I and B series – should be aware that, for these later publications, the lack of another holding library in the RISM database does not necessarily imply that further exemplars could not be owned by other institutions worldwide. It likely just means that other holding libraries have not reported their copies to RISM yet.

As hinted above, if libraries prioritized their unica when cataloging their holdings or running digitization projects, they could not only provide great help to the international community of music librarians and scholars, but also demonstrate the importance of their collection in an international context. At the same time, this search option in RISM Online is also of great relevance to all kinds of researchers because they can identify sources which can only be studied on the basis of the exemplar listed – a source situation that in itself guarantees that their investigations should produce unique results.

Image: Title page to Emilio Virgelli, Il primo libro de madrigali a cinque voci (Venice: Gardano, 1594), in the only surviving copy at the Library of Congress (US-Wc M1490 .V8). RISM ID no. 990067091 (RISM Catalog | RISM Online). Available online (public domain).

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