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

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  • Preliminary Advices

    A bibliographical description is a systematic report concerning a publication’s type, paper, printing, illustrations, and binding, and the relation between its physical characteristics and the circumstances of its authorship, publication, distribution, and readership. Typically, a basic bibliographical description (or formulary) consists of a statement regarding its format and collational formula, which describes the number of leaves per gathering, the manner in which gatherings are signed and the leaves paginated, and the order in which gatherings were intended to be bound. In a thorough description, 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). A full description typically concludes with relevant details of the book’s authorship, publication, and distribution.

    The course lectures and museums introduce and discuss examples of type, paper, bindings, illustrations, best bibliographical practices, &c. The labs and homework focus intensively on 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.

    Required Reading

    The following two works are the foundational texts for this course.

    Gaskell, Philip. A New Introduction to Bibliography. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972, corrected 2nd printing, 1974; paperback edition, New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 1995. Use any printing except the 1st, uncorrected printing (1972).

    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: 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.

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

    N.B. Bowers is out of print and used copies are difficult to find. The better option may be to borrow a copy from your library or via interlibrary loan.

    Begin by reading the Foreword, Tanselle’s introduction (if you have the Oak Knoll edition), and Chapter 1. Then go right on to Chapters 5, 7, 12, and Appendix I. These 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. Read as much of the rest of the book as you can, especially pp. 113-123, and 255-268.

    Please also read this useful overview of the field and its practice, preferably before reading Bowers and Gaskell:

    Belanger, Terry. “Descriptive bibliography,” in Book Collecting: A Modern Guide, ed. by Jean Peters. New York: R. R. Bowker Company, 1977, pp. 97-115.

    Required Viewing

    The Anatomy of a Book: I. Format in the Hand-Press Period. 1991. 30 minutes. Available on YouTube.

    The video is supplemented by a workbook and set of facsimile practice materials. These materials are required reading and can be purchased from RBS for $25 by emailing rbsprograms@virginia.edu. Please note: orders placed fewer than two weeks prior to the course may not arrive in time. Additionally, students located outside of the United States must contact RBS for international shipping rates before sending payment.

    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.

    Recommended Reading

    The course places a heavy emphasis on terminology. For this reason, we recommend reading:

    Carter, John. ABC for Book Collectors. London: Hart-Davis, 1952.  9th edition, revised by Nicolas Barker & Simran Thadani, New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2016. Use any later edition. The 8th edition (2004) is available free of charge as a PDF.


    Be sure 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 may be especially helpful. If you find that you cannot do that much preparation prior to the first day of class, please consider withdrawing (consult the student evaluations of this course if you don’t believe us).

    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.