Rare Book School

RBS Home| Course Schedule | Admissions | Contact RBS | Previous Years

G-20. Bibliographerĺs Toolkit: Printed Books to 1800

David Whitesell

An introduction to the physical aspects of books from the hand-press period. The course will cover the description and identification of paper (laid vs. wove, watermarks); typography (identification of type styles, dating books from their design); printing and illustration processes (letterpress, intaglio), binding materials (tanned skins, parchment, paper) and styles (dating bindings); and provenance (inscriptions, bookplates, the ways in which books have been physically altered by later owners). Topics include: how to read a bibliographical description of a hand-press-period book (format, collation, signings, pagination); edition, issue, and state; where to find out more about physical aspects of pre-1800 books. The course will rely heavily on RBSĺs rich collection of examples of books and related materials produced during the hand-press period.

The course is intended for collectors, dealers, librarians, teachers and others who need an introduction to the nomenclature of printed books produced before 1800. In their personal statement, applicants should describe the extent of their background in the history of books and printing, the nature of their interest in the subject, and how they expect to apply what they learn.

Note on the differences between the Bibliographerĺs Toolkit 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 “Bibliographerĺs Toolkit” 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 ômuseumö sessions. The Toolkit courses provide a less intensive introduction to format and collation, and “museum” sessions are interpreted by faculty in a more traditional, interactive seminar setting. Students in all courses, however, benefit from close, extended contact with RBSĺs renowned study collections of books, bindings, and related artifacts. The Toolkit courses are intended for collectors, dealers, librarians, teachers and others who seek an introduction on how to identify and describe printed books, but who do not wish to spend an intensive amount of time on the study of format and collational formulas.

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 Toolkit courses would be a good fit. Because of the overlap in course content, RBS discourages students from applying to both the Toolkit courses and G-10 in the same year; however, students who complete either of the Toolkit 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.

Course Resources

Course History


David Whitesell teaches this course for the first time.