Bibliotheca universalis (in four volumes, 1545–49) was the first truly comprehensive "universal" listing of all the books of the first century of printing. It was an alphabetical bibliography that listed all the known books printed in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew.
The Swiss scholar Conrad Gesner started to compile this extensive work on Bibliotheca universalis at the age of 25. He first visited as many of the Italian and German libraries as he could find. He published the work in 1545, after some four years of research. It included his own bio-bibliography. His first edition of the Bibliotheca universalis listed about ten thousand titles. Bibliotheca universalis was the first modern bibliography of importance; through it, Gesner became known as the "father of bibliography."
The work included approximately eighteen hundred authors. The authors’ forenames were listed with a reverse index of their surnames. It was intended as an index by subject of all known authors. Gesner listed the writers alphabetically with the titles of their works. He added his own annotations, comments, and evaluations of the nature and merit of every entry.
Gesner followed Johannes Trithemius’s work of placing works in systems of cataloging. Gesner admired Trithemius’s systems and used them as guidelines and templates; however Gesner carried the idea of cataloging and systems a step further. Theodore Besterman, in The Beginnings of Systematic Bibliography, suggests that Gerner’s work to organize knowledge was the forerunner of Francis Bacon’s works and other encyclopedias that followed.
In 1548 Gesner followed with a companion work to Bibliotheca universalis, a large folio, Pandectarum sive Partitionum universalium Conradi Gesneri (Pandectae). This contained thirty thousand topical entries. Each of these entries were cross-referenced to the appropriate author and book, arranged under headings and sub-headings, which were associated with various branches of learning.
The Pandects had nineteen sections, each devoted to a scholarly discipline and contained dedications to the best scholar printers of Gesner's time. He listed their publications and accomplishments. Gesner made full use of any publishers' catalogues and booksellers' lists which were available in the 16th century that were printed when he was doing his research. Hans Fischer in his book Conrad Gesner (1516–1565) as Bibliographer and Encyclopaedists points out that Gesner made use of printed catalogues supplied by firms like Aldus Manutius of Venice and Henri Estienne of Paris.
Gesner became famous after his publication of Bibliotheca universalis. He received many offers of employment in the educational fields. One such offer came from the Fuggers of Augsburg, the richest family of Europe at the time. The Fuggers attached the condition of employment that he follow Catholicism. Gesner refused the offer since he was Protestant.
Gesner's work, with its heterodox principles and advanced Protestant scholarship was a direct challenge to the authority of the Catholic Church which soon banned the work in the Index librorum prohibitorum. The Counter Reformation's response took another generation of Catholic scholarship to produce and appeared on the Vatican press in Rome in 1593 under the programmatic title, Bibliotheca selecta. This updated "Anti-Gesner" was assembled in 18 books covering the bibliography of the traditional scientific disciplines (Theology, 1-11, Law, 12, Philosophy, 13, Medicine, 14) and the liberal arts, 15-18, by the Mantuan Jesuit humanist and bibliographer Antonio Possevino.
- In full Bibliotheca universalis sive catalogus omnium scriptorum locupletissimus in tribus linguis Latina, Graeca et Hebraica: extantium & non extantium, veterum & recentiorum.
- Eisenstein, pp. 97–98
- Anzovin, p. 68 item 1813 The first modern bibliography of importance was the Bibliotheca Universalis. Conrad Gesner was known as the "father of bibliography".
- Gesner, Konrad Bibliotheca universalis und Appendix. With a Postscript by Hans Widmann, Osnabriick, Otto Zeller, 1966
- Anzovin, Steven et al., Famous first facts, international edition: a record of first happenings, discoveries, and inventions in world history by H. W. Wilson Company (2000), ISBN 0-8242-0958-3
- Eisenstein, Elizabeth L., The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, 1979, ISBN 0-521-29955-1