G-10. Introduction to the Principles of Bibliographical Description - Advance Reading List

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  • Preliminary Advices

    Descriptive bibliography may be defined as the close physical description of 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 begins with the formulary: a statement regarding its format 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 papertypography, and letterpress contents; its plates, maps, or other inserted illustrative matter; and itsbinding (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 authorshippublication, and distribution.

    While the course lectures and museums introduce and discuss 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 chapters 5, 7, and 12 of Fredson Bowers’ Principles of Bibliographical Description. The preparatory reading is primarily intended to provide the background necessary for understanding what the formulary describes.

    The following 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.

    Gaskell, Philip. A New Introduction to Bibliography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972; corrected ed. 1974; several subsequent reprintings with minor corrections; paperback ed. published in 1995 for $39.95 by Oak Knoll Press.

    Gaskell describes the processes that produce the books we set ourselves to describe, and some parts of Bowers are virtually incomprehensible without some knowledge of these processes. One possible strategy would be to read all of Gaskell through quickly, then return to the more technical sections, especially those describing type, paper, and printing procedures of the hand-press 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.

    Bowers, Fredson. Principles of Bibliographical Description. Princeton, 1949; reprinted 1994 (with an introduction by G. Thomas Tanselle) by Oak Knoll Press for $39.95.

    Begin by reading the foreword, chapter 1, and Tanselle’s introduction (if you have the Oak Knoll edition). Then go right on to chapters 5, 7, and 12. These 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. There’s a “Digest of the formulary” on 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 concise explanation of format and collation in Gaskell (pp. 321–335), though it deviates from Bowers at several points; when in doubt, follow Bowers. Read as much of the rest of the book as you can, especially pp. 113–123, and 255–268.

    Please also read, preferably before reading Bowers and Gaskell:

    Belanger, Terry. “Descriptive bibliography.” In Book Collecting: A Modern Guide, edited by Jean Peters, 97–115. New York: R. R. Bowker Company, 1977. This article provides a useful overview of the field and its practice. (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) the Belanger article with a careful viewing of:

    The Anatomy of a Book: I. Format in the Hand-Press Period. Written by Terry Belanger and directed by Peter Herdrich. You can purchase a copy of the DVD along with a workbook and facsimile practice materials from RBS for $45; the video itself is available on YouTube. Please note: students located outside of the United States must contact RBS for international shipping rates before sending payment. The Anatomy of a Book: I is an active demonstration of the basics of format and book structure. Seeing it, and then practicing with the facsimile sheets, will help you picture what’s going on in Gaskell and Bowers.

    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, reading:

    John Carter. ABC for Book Collectors. London, 1952; 9th ed. by Nicolas Barker and Simran Thadani. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2016.

    Available by mail for $29.95 from Amazon.com or from its publisher, Oak Knoll Books. The 8th edition (2004) is also available as a PDF.

    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 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’.

    Here is a sample bibliographical description of the sort students will be asked to prepare during homework and lab sessions:

    Feijoó y Montenegro, Benito Gerónimo. Theatro crítico universal. Nueva impresion. Volume IV. Madrid: Imprenta Real, 1773.

    4°: a-b8 c4 A-2G8 [$4(-c3,4) signed]; 260 leaves, pp. [I-II] III-XL, 1-478 [479-480] [misprinting 155 as 551, 176 as 276, 272 as 172, and 394 as 294]

    Click here for more sample bibliographical descriptions.