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Preliminary Reading List

Introduction to the Principles of Bibliographical Description

David Whitesell

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 the relation between their physical characteristics and the circumstances of their authorship, publication, distribution, and readership. 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 (especially if executed by the publisher before sale to the public); and regulatory circumstances (e.g. licenses or privileges). The description typically concludes with relevant details of the book's authorship, publication and distribution.

While the course lectures and museums discuss and present examples of type, paper, bindings, illustrations, &c., the foundations of the 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 developed in Fredson Bowers' Principles of bibliographical description, 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.

Two works are the foundational texts for this course. Please buy or borrow copies of both Gaskell and Bowers and bring them with you to class.

1. Philip Gaskell. A New Introduction to Bibliography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972; corrected ed. 1974; several subsequent British and American reprintings with minor corrections; paperback ed. published in 1995 for $29.95 by Oak Knoll Books.

Gaskell describes the processes that produce the books we set ourselves to describe, and at least some parts of Bowers (see immediately below) are virtually incomprehensible without some knowledge of these processes. One possible strategy would be to read the whole text of Gaskell through quickly, then return to the more technical sections, especially those describing type, paper, and printing procedures of the handpress period. In doing so, however, don't delay your encounter with Bowers; you may find yourself referring back to Gaskell from time to time as you read Principles.

2. Fredson Bowers. Principles of Bibliographical Description. Princeton, 1949; repr. 1994 (with an introduction by G. Thomas Tanselle) by Oak Knoll Books for $29.95.

Begin by reading the preliminary matter, including Tanselle's introduction (if you have the Oak Knoll edition). Then go right on to chapters 5, 7, and 12. Read as much of the rest of the book as you can—at least enough to get the shape of the thing—but those three chapters are the basis for what we will be teaching you to do in this course. At first encounter they may prove hard to understand. Don't despair: once you've got an actual book in hand to describe, things become much clearer. Nevertheless, it's essential that you should have good enough command of those chapters to be able to use them for reference during the week and understand the terminology. There's a “Digest of the formulary” towards the end of the book (pp 457-462), though it's no more than an aide mémoire. (NB: In the Digest, when Bowers says do “x or y”, he prefers y.) There's also a good, concise explanation of the principles of format and collation, &c., in Gaskell (pp 321-335). At a few points Gaskell's collational formulations disagree with those of Bowers; when in doubt, follow Bowers.

As a preliminary to Bowers and Gaskell, read:

3. 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 is held by a great many public and academic libraries. (The excerpt available on the website of the Bibliographical Society of America omits the part of the essay that is immediately relevant to this course.)

Follow (or precede) this with a careful viewing of:

4. The Anatomy of a Book: I. Format in the hand-press period. Written by Terry Belanger and directed by Peter Herdrich.

The DVD can be purchased from Rare Book School at a reduced rate of $45 (this discount applies only for students enrolled in Descriptive Bibliography at RBS). The $45 package includes workbook and facsimile practice materials as well as cost of domestic shipping. Please note: students located outside of the United States must contact RBS for international shipping rates before sending payment.

“Descriptive Bibliography” provides a useful overview of the field and its practice. The Anatomy of a Book I is an active demonstration of the basics of format and instruction in, among other things, the art of folding paper, an activity that remains useful even at an advanced level of bibliographical experience. Seeing it, and then practicing with the facsimile sheets, will help you picture what's going on in Gaskell and Bowers.

Envoi: 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 good grasp of the vocabulary of the physical book. For this reason, the course puts a heavy emphasis on terminology. We highly recommend, as further preparation for the course, at least scanning (and thus inevitably reading, since the book is much more entertaining than its title suggests):

5. John Carter. ABC for Book Collectors. London 1952; 8th ed. by John Carter and Nicolas Barker. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press; London: British Library, 2004.

Available by mail for $30 postpaid from Amazon.com or from its American publisher, Oak Knoll Books.

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


Be sure, at the very least, to look carefully through Bowers and Gaskell before coming to Charlottesville, and bring both texts with you to class. Books will be presented to you almost at once to establish their format and collation, and you'll need to have some idea what that means; in that respect the DVD, accompanying workbook, and facsimile practice sheets are especially helpful. If you find that you cannot do that much preparation between now and the first day of class, please withdraw (consult the  student evaluations of this course if you don't believe us). The faculty and lab instructors know full well that Bowers, in particular, may be a hard go at first, and are experienced in shedding light on his murkier passages; but you must prepare before coming to class, or you will simply be wasting time—yours and the instructors' and your fellow students'.

For sample bibliographical descriptions of the sort students will be asked to prepare during homework and laboratory sessions, click here.