G-10. Introduction to the Principles of Bibliographical Description

David Whitesell

This course is intended for persons who desire a better understanding of the physical examination and description of printed books, especially of the period 1550–1900. It is 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 as set forth in Fredson Bowers’ Principles of Bibliographical Description.

Each class day is divided into four periods: lecture, homework, lab, and museum. Daily lectures concentrate on methods of determining format and collation, and of describing paper, type, and the circumstances of publication (edition, issue, and state), with a coda on the history, application, and future of descriptive bibliography. Students prepare for daily lab periods by working with progressively more difficult examples of various formats and collations. A major part of the course consists of small, closely supervised laboratory periods in which students practice the determination of format and collation and the writing of standard descriptions of signings and pagination. In daily museum periods, students will have the opportunity to handle a wide variety of printed books and other materials—tools and equipment, samples and examples, self-teaching packages, and the like—drawn from the celebrated Rare Book School collections. Students should expect to devote part of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evenings to homework; they should also commit themselves to a significant amount of advance preparation prior to the first day of class.

In their personal statement, applicants should describe the extent of their background in bibliography, the nature of their interest in the subject, and how they expect to apply what they learn. There is no formal prerequisite for the course, though students with little prior exposure to pre-1900 books may be directed to other Rare Book School course(s) before being offered admission to G-10.

Note on the differences between the “Printed Books: Description & Analysis” courses (G-20 and G-30) and this course (G-10).

This course (G-10) covers much the same ground as the “Printed Books: Description & Analysis” courses (G-20 and G-30). G-10, however, focuses more intensively on format, collation and the rigorous description of hand- and machine-press period books through homework and laboratory periods; it also emphasizes self-study of physical features and terminology through “museum” periods. Its primary text is Fredson Bowers’ Principles of Bibliographical Description, supplemented by Philip Gaskell’s A New Introduction to Bibliography.

In the “Printed Books” courses, Gaskell serves as the principal text. G-20 and G-30 are intended for collectors, booksellers, librarians, educators, and others who seek an introduction to the physical features 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 three courses enjoy intensive 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, combined with the ability to interpret bibliographical descriptions, would better suit your career plans or personal interests, then either G-20 or G-30 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 well prepared for the Advanced Descriptive Bibliography course (G-50).

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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