G-10. Introduction to the Principles of Bibliographical Description

David Whitesell

An introduction to the physical examination and description of printed books, especially of the period 1550–1900. Designed both for those with little formal exposure to this subject and for those with some general knowledge of the field who seek a systematic discussion of the elements of physical description. A major part of the course will consist of small, closely supervised laboratory sessions in which students will practice the determination of format and collation and the writing of standard descriptions of signings and pagination. In daily museum sessions, students will have the opportunity to see a wide variety of printed books and other materials drawn from the extensive Rare Book School collections.

This course is intended for persons who desire a better understanding of the physical description of books, particularly those produced before about 1900. Each class day is divided into four parts: lecture, homework, lab, and museum. Daily lectures concentrate on methods of determining format and collation, and of describing type, paper, illustrations, binding, and the circumstances of publication, with a coda on the history and future of descriptive bibliography. Students prepare for daily lab sessions in which they work, under close supervision, with progressively more difficult examples of various formats and collations. During the daily museum periods, students have extensive hands-on access to the celebrated Rare Book School realia collections: tools and equipment, samples and examples, self-teaching packages, and the like. Students should expect to devote part of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evenings to homework.

In their personal statement, applicants should described the extent of their background in bibliography, the nature of their interest in the subject, and how they expect to apply what they learn.

Note on the differences between the Printed Books: Description & Analysis courses and Introduction to the Principles of Bibliographical Description

Introduction to the Principles of Bibliographical Description (G-10) covers much the same ground as the “Printed Book” courses. The differences are basically these: G-10 focuses more intensively on format and collation and on the rigorous description of hand- and machine-press period books through laboratory sessions and homework; it also emphasizes self-study of terminology and the physical book through “museum” sessions. The Printed Books courses are intended for collectors, booksellers, librarians, educators, and others who seek an introduction to the identification and description of printed books—presented in a more traditional, interactive seminar setting—but who do not wish to spend an extended amount of time on the study of format and collational formulas. Students in all courses, however, benefit from close, extended contact with Rare Book School’s renowned study collections of books, bindings, and related artifacts.

If you anticipate the need to produce bibliographical descriptions of your own, including accurate collational formulas, you may find G-10 more suited to your needs. If a broader overview would better suit your career plans or personal interests, then either of the Printed Books courses would be a good fit. Because of the overlap in course content, Rare Book School discourages students from applying to a Printed Books course and G-10 in the same year; however, students who complete either of the Printed Books courses are welcome to apply to G-10 in subsequent years, but not vice versa. Students who take G-10 will find themselves better prepared for the Advanced Descriptive Bibliography course.

N.B., The tuition for this course is $1,495 owing to the expenses associated with a larger faculty.

Course History

David Whitesell teaches this course.
Richard Noble and David Whitesell co-teach this course.
The course title is changed to “Introduction to the Principles of Bibliographical Description.”
David Gants and Richard Noble co-teach this course.
Terry Belanger and Richard Noble co-teach this course.
Terry Belanger and David Ferris co-teach this course.
Terry Belanger, Donald Farren, and David Ferris co-teach this course.
Terry Belanger and Donald Farren co-teach this course.
Donald Farren inaugurates this course as “Introduction to Descriptive Bibliography.”

Course Resources

  • Advance Reading List
  • Evaluations for this course:

Related Courses


David Whitesell

David Whitesell

David Whitesell is Curator in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia, before which he was Curator of Books at the American Antiquarian Society, a rare book cataloger at the Houghton Library, Harvard University, and in the antiquarian book trade. He has served as Secretary of the Bibliographical Society of America and as a Trustee of the American Printing History Association. His publications include First Supplement to James E. Walsh’s Catalogue of the Fifteenth-Century Printed Books in the Harvard University Library (2006); he also served as Associate Editor for Spain, Portugal, and Latin America for the Oxford Companion to the Book (2010), and as editor of Roger Stoddard’s A Bibliographical Description of Books and Pamphlets of American Verse Printed from 1610 Through 1820 (2012; winner of the MLA Prize in Bibliography). Among the exhibitions he has curated is In Pursuit of a Vision: Two Centuries of Collecting at the American Antiquarian Society (2012).

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