Studies of incunabula began in the 17th century. M. Maittaire (1667-1747) and G.W. Panzer (1729-1805) chronologically arranged printed material in annals format, and in the first half of the 19th century, L. Hain published a catalog of incunabula in which all items were arranged in alphabetical order by author. In Hain's catalog, however, many of the places and dates of printing, and names of printers, were left as unknown. In the second half of the 19th century, researchers began identifying the names of the printers by comparing the typefaces. Using this method, many European nations launched projects to compile catalogs of incunabula. Germany, in particular, aspired to publish the most exhaustive union catalog of incunabula.
K. Dziatzko (1842-1903), who led this project in Germany, announced his plan in 1901 and an editorial commission (Kommision für den Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke) was established in 1904 to compile a comprehensive union catalog of incunabula. K. Haebler (1857-1946), who played a central role in the commission, collected data on 145,000 incunabula owned by 676 organizations in Germany over a period of 11 years from 1906. One of the objectives of the GW was to find out where the world's incunabula exist, and surveys of incunabula outside Germany were carried out. In 1914, a catalog of broadsides was published first. Haebler also compiled the Typenrepertorium der Wiegendrucke (1905-24), a tool for identifying the type used in incunabula, and as a byproduct of this compilation work, he published three different collections of incunabula leaves (1927-28).
GW is a huge catalog of incunabula comprising 27 volumes, the first of which was published in Leipzig in 1925. Volumes 1 through 7 and the first fascicle of Volume 8 were published by 1940, but then publication was interrupted by the war. Volume 8 was completed in 1978, and Volumes 9 and 10 were published in 1991 and 2000. Currently, the eleventh volume is being published in parts. Since 2003, the Internet version of GW has been open to the public.