Descriptive Biblography

Two weeks ago I took a course with the California Rare Book School at UCLA on the topic of descriptive bibliography. The instructor was Gerald W. Cloud, a bookseller with years of professional experience as a rare book and manuscript curator and librarian for various special collections.

This course was the most intensive of the classes I have taken with CalRBS, probably because it involved learning a completely new skill: determining format and writing a collational formula for a book. The course involved taking a set of books printed between 1600 – 1800 and learning how to examine the handmade or machine made paper to determine how the pages were printed or the format of the book.

We used an LED light to find the direction of the chainlines and placement of watermarks or printers marks. From this information, along with other paper and binding clues, we could decide if the book was a folio, quarto, octavo, duodecimo, sextodecimo, octodecimo or 24-mo. Format could also be determined by looking at the gatherings and the placement of the signatures.

Cloud came to class with examples of what the different full pages would have looked like when they ran through the press. We could then fold the examples to see how those pages would have been folded, cut, and grouped into gatherings by the binder. The samples included the chainlines and watermarks so that we could see the direction of these in the different formats.

Of course not every book followed the “rules” exactly so it was a fun challenge to use other clues to try to determine format. The machine-made paper period was the most challenging, and we followed Bowers’ instruction to list the book’s dimensions in the bibliographical description when there was no clear format. Books from handmade paper were easier in this respect. I purchased a set of these examples from the Virginia Rare Book School for my own future reference:

After guessing at the format, we looked for the signatures (notes from the printer to the binder explaining how the book should be folded, cut, and gathered) at the bottom of the pages and took notes of placement and any inconsistencies.


We used Fredson Bowers’ Principles of Bibliographical Description as the definitive resource. Cloud asked us to read this book as well as Philip Gaskell’s A New Introduction to Bibliography prior to coming to class. Fortunately, I found the time to read through both as well as watch a helpful Rare Book School video showing examples of printing formats. So I was prepared when we started out collating books on the second day of class.

After reviewing a set of books in a team, we wrote the following on a white board: 1. format, 2. collational formula, 3. leaf count, and 4. pagination. Cloud would then walk us through our mistakes and point out how to correct or condense what we can come up with. This was a great way to learn. By the end of the week I feel like I am fluent in reading descriptive bibliographies and could use a lot more practice in writing them.

What was most significant about this learning process was the way it made me think about rare books when I handle them. Before buying any rare books, I am going to insist on being allowed to collate the book before purchasing. It gives you a more intimate knowledge of the individual copy of the book and potentially raises questions about the printing and binding. Not only that, but I have a deeper appreciation and respect for the printers working on handmade paper and sending sheets off to binders or to clients to take to binders. You could really sense how printing evolved as the equipment improved and the printers fine-tuned their practices over a few hundred years.

We also learned about the “ideal copy” of a book, editions, impressions, issues, and states. I had been confusing these terms and now have a much better idea of how the terminology should be used. To illustrate, Cloud showed us the progression of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses from the first edition with multiple impressions through to the trial in the United States and first U.S. printing of the book which was made from a pirated copy of the book and not the copy that was intended for printing. It was an interesting example because of the way that Joyce continued to edit the book and provide the printer with revisions even as it was being distributed and read leading to several different states of the printing.

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One day we visiting UCLA’s Clark Library and viewed multiple copies of Shakespeare’s Second Folio to compare the different issues and states of printing. We also reviewed other descriptive bibliographies next to copies of the books they were referencing. This was very instructive because of the way that different bibliographers had written collational formulas or described the books without using a formula. It gave me an idea of what kind of bibliography I would like to write for my own collections one day (and how not to write one if I ever want anyone else to read it).

EINI8111I chose to focus on a copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer and an Oak Knoll Press publication, The Kelmscott Chaucer: a census by William S. Peterson and Sylvia Holton Peterson. I also viewed copies of books printed by John Baskerville and Aldus Manutius and books written by Herman Melville and Oscar Wilde (the Clark is known for their amazing Wilde collection).

Nina Schneider, Rare Books Librarian at the Clark Library, gave us a presentation on her work writing descriptive bibliography for Master Printer Russell Maret. She explained her process of working with the printer and how she decided to set a standard for what she would include in the bibliography. Her work writing Russell Maret’s descriptive bibliography was beautiful; clear and easy to read. We have started to collect Mr. Maret’s work, and I wish we could own a copy of this bibliography because it is a lovely work of art itself and wonderful reference for a collection. Alas, there are no more copies available.

Here is a sample of one of Cloud’s descriptions from one of the books we reviewed in class. It really is an art.


I would strongly recommend this class to anyone who is collecting. Most of the students in the class were special collections librarians and interested in this for their professional careers, but there were two of us collectors. I believe the knowledge I gained from this class will significantly enrich my experience collecting as well as any work I do at my own press.  There is a class in analytical bibliography at the Virginia Rare Book School that I intend to check out next.



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