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Global Historical Bibliometrics

Bibliometrics, the science that occupies itself with the application of mathematical and statistical methods to books and other media of communication (Pritchard, 1969), is a field that can be quite fruitful too for other sciences interested in quantitative time-series on the development of ideas and the processes of their communication.

Our project named "Global Historical Bibliometrics" aims to produce a database that covers bibliometrical data on the one hand over an area geographically as wide as possible and on the other hand over a period as long as is feasible and that eventually contains worldwide historical data on current and historical stocks and production of handwritten or printed materials used for human communication.

Such data may be very interesting because the production and accumulation of "books" can be used as a proxy of the production and accumulation of ideas - an important variable in for example endogenous growth theory (Kremer 1993). Also, the demand for books will to a large extent be determined by the level of literacy in a given society, although other variables such as income per capita and the relative price of books will also play a role (as well as cultural influences, such as religion). In short, the production of books is linked to a number of variables that are used in new growth theory, such as human capital and knowledge production. The numbers of manuscript and printed books produced in a given society are, in brief, complex measures of economic performance and of societal capabilities, and therefore a valuable guide to the study of long-term economic change. The final goal, which is the quantification of global "book" production over time in this database Global Historical Bibliometrics makes it possible to address some of the big debates in the (economic) history of the world.

The database Global Historical Bibliometrics and its contents will be freely accessible for research purposes to people from over the world by means of the World Wide Web. Furthermore users are invited to make their own results in this field available to the Webmaster of the database too. Such additional information will gradually enlarge the database and hopefully make it of even greater use to others in the future.

A first paper documenting the long-term development of book production and consumption in Western Europe between 500 and 1800 is now available: Eltjo Buringh and Jan Luiten van Zanden, Charting the 'rise of the West'. Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe, A long-term perspective from the sixth to the eighteenth centuries. The appendices give details of estimates of book production in the extremely long period. The underlying data of the estimates of the urbanisation process in Europe used in the paper are available in excel.
Other papers on book production in Western Europe 500-1800 in comparison with other parts of Eurasia are in preparation.


Pritchard, A. (1969), "Statistical bibliography or Bibliometrics?", Journal of Documentation 24: 348-349.

Kremer, M. (1993), "Population Growth and Technological Change: One Million B.C. to 1990", Quarterly Journal of Economics 108: 681-716.