Initially, the idea was to concentrate on the Western world and acquisitions were confined to significant literary works. The focus was on writings in Ancient Greek and Latin, and in the five leading European languages: French, German, English, Italian and Spanish. Only German literature and German translations from different countries and periods were widely represented. The two exceptions were the Bible and Faust which Martin Bodmer had collected in close to 59 languages.
What did Bodmer mean by ‘documents’? Simply, manuscripts or printed texts as close as possible to the originals.
He defined 6 categories of documents (two main categories and four sub-categories):
For modern times: only autograph manuscripts were considered as authentic documents. Also included were original editions and editions revised and corrected by the author.
For ancient times: no contemporary manuscripts existed, only fragments. Classical literature was transcribed much later. Incunabula, the first copies of Greek and Roman authors, were considered as documents even though they were reproduced 15 to 20 centuries after the originals.
Between these two extremes, there were four categories:
- Ancient fragments of texts, the oldest dating back several thousand years before our era
- Manuscripts of complete texts from the Carolingians to the beginning of the 16th century when printing took over from previous techniques. Although manuscripts were no longer valued in Europe, they retained their importance in the East
- Printed books: from Gutenberg to the present
- Autograph manuscripts from the Renaissance to the present day