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Rare Book School at the University of Virginia

Rare Book School
Preliminary Reading List

Introduction to Descriptive Bibliography

Richard Noble & David Gants


Preliminary Advices

Descriptive bibliography may be defined as the close physical description of books and other printed objects: a systematic report concerning their type, paper, printing, illustrations, and binding, and how the circumstances of their publication and distribution may have affected their physical appearance. Typically, the bibliographical description of a book produced during the hand-press period (before about 1800) begins with a statement regarding its format (the relationship between the sheets of paper on which it was printed and the individual leaves created when the sheets were folded into gatherings) and collational formula (a condensed statement describing the number of leaves per gathering, the manner in which the gatherings were signed and the leaves paginated, and the order in which the gatherings were intended to be bound). The formulary is followed by descriptions of the book's paper, typography, and letterpress contents; its plates, maps, or other inserted illustrative matter; and its binding (esp. if executed by the publisher before sale to the public); regulatory circumstances (eg licenses or privileges). The description typically concludes with relevant details of the book's authorship, publication and distribution.

In the same way that an adequate physical description of a tree requires the use of words like root, trunk, bark, branch, twig, leaf, or flower, the necessary prerequisite for the practice of coherent descriptive bibliography is a fairly close grasp of the vocabulary of the physical book. For this reason, the course puts a heavy emphasis on terminology. In preparation for the course, please read:

  1. John Carter. ABC for book collectors. London 1952; 8th edn by John Carter and Nicolas Barker. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press; and London: British Library, 2004. Read this book carefully a couple of times. Available by mail for $30 postpaid from Amazon.com or from its American publisher, Oak Knoll Books. The most recent edition of Carter's ABC for Book Collectors is also available for downloading online without charge as a .pdf file.
  2. One weakness of Carter is its lack of illustrations. It may usefully be supplemented by:

  3. Roger E. Stoddard. Marks in books, illustrated and explained. Cambridge, MA: Harvard College Library, 1985. (Order from the Houghton Library at: http://hcl.harvard.edu/houghton/programs/publications.html.)
  4. Another strong emphasis of the course is the format and collation of books produced during the hand-press period. Begin by reading:

  5. Terry Belanger. "Descriptive bibliography," in Book collecting: a modern guide, ed by Jean Peters. NY: R. R. Bowker Company, 1977, pp 97-115. You should not have too much difficulty in getting a copy of this book, which has been in print for many years, and which is held by a great many public and academic libraries.
  6. After reading TB's article in this book, take a careful look at:

  7. The Anatomy of a Book: I: Format in the Hand-Press Period. Written by Terry Belanger and directed by Peter Herdrich. The DVD is available for sale from the Book Arts Press at a reduced rate of $75 (this discount applies only for students enrolled in Descriptive Bibliography at RBS). The $75 package includes workbook and facsimile materials as well as cost of domestic shipping. Students will receive order forms for these materials in their admit packet. Please note: students located outside of the United States must contact RBS for international shipping rates before sending payment.
  8. Philip Gaskell. A new introduction to bibliography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972; corr edn 1974; several subsequent British and American reprintings with minor corrections; paperback edn published in 1995 for $29.95 by Oak Knoll Books. There's a good, concise explanation of the principles of format and collation, &c., in Gaskell, pp 321-335. At some point (if possible, but not necessarily, before coming to class), read the whole text of Gaskell through quickly, without letting it intimidate you; if you get bogged down in some of the more technical sections, skip them, and come back to them later (e.g. after you've taken this course!). Gaskell describes the processes that produce the books we set ourselves to describe, and at least some parts eg of Bowers (see immediately below) are virtually incomprehensible without some knowledge of these processes.
  9. Fredson Bowers. Principles of bibliographical description. Princeton, 1949; rep 1994 (with an introduction by G. Thomas Tanselle) by Oak Knoll Books for $29.95. Please borrow or buy a copy of this book and bring it with you to class. Begin by reading the preliminary matter, including (and especially) Tanselle's introduction. Then plow your way through at least Chapters 5, 7, and 12; read as much of the rest of the book as you can. In a couple of places, Gaskell's collational formulations disagree with those of Bowers; when in doubt, follow Bowers.

All of the above should get you started.

Final note: While the course lectures and museums cover and present examples of type, paper, bindings, illustrations, &c., the basics of this course - the labs and homework -- have to do with format and collation: learning how to analyze and describe the structure of a book following the formulary set forth in Bowers, chapters 5, 7, and 12. The preparatory reading is primarily intended to provide the background necessary for understanding just what it is that the statement of format and collation describes.

Be sure to see the videotape and (at the very least) look carefully through Carter and Bowers before coming to Charlottesville. In class, books will be presented to you almost at once so that you can establish their formats and collations, and you'll need to have some idea what to do. If you discover that you do not have time to do any reading between now and the first day of class, please withdraw from the course. Consult the RBS student evaluations of this course if you don't believe us: you must be prepared before coming to class, or you will simply be wasting your time here!

We'll be handing out a detailed, structured reading list (The Exit List) in class, to give you something to chew on after you've taken the course.