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G-20. Printed Books to 1800: Description & Analysis

David Whitesell

An introduction to the physical aspects of books from the hand-press period. The course will cover the identification and description of paper (laid vs. wove, watermarks); typography (type sizes and styles); letterpress printing; illustration processes (relief, intaglio); binding materials (leather, parchment, paper) and styles (dating and localizing bindings); provenance (markings, inscriptions, bookplates, the ways in which books have been physically altered by later owners); and the use of physical evidence in bibliographical analysis. 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 Rare Book School’s rich collection of pre-1800 books and related artifacts. In addition to the daily class sessions, there will be one evening session on Wednesday.

The course is intended for collectors, booksellers, librarians, educators, and others who seek 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 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.

Course Resources

Course History


This course is renamed “Printed Books to 1800: Description & Analysis.”


David Whitesell teaches this course for the first time as “Bibliographer’s Toolkit: Printed Books to 1800.”