The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Return from RBS

During the last week of July I attended a course at Rare Book School, housed at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. The class was an introduction to bibliographic description or, basically, the physical description of books created during the hand-press period, or, up to about the mid-19th century. The course focused mainly on the printing process that occurred in between the functions of the author and the binder.

The course concentrated on just a few elements of bibliographic description, namely format, collation formulae, signing statements, and pagination. This information seems a bit esoteric at first but it can be valuable for researchers who study printing processes or who examine all editions of a given title in order to identify printing errors and corrections and discrepancies among various printings.

As I walk through the stacks here at the Society now, I keep my eyes peeled for interesting-looking volumes that I can practice with. Trebly-beneficial, this will allow me to 1) keep my newly-acquired skills sharp, 2) familiarize myself more with the MHS’ rare book collection, and 3) potentially aid our cataloging department in the cases where these descriptions are not already present.

And with that said, I will share one such example of a collation formula to illustrate the practice. The volume I chose has a long title so I will only give part: “Pansebeia: or, A view of all the religions in the world…” (London, 1664). The MHS has three different copies of this title from three different dates. This 1664 version is the fourth edition. When I checked in our online catalog, ABIGAIL, I noticed that this copy did not have a collation formula attached while the other two did.

I start by measuring the size of the leaves and examining the paper for evidence of chain lines and watermarks. These will give clues as to the format of the book (folio, octavo, duodecimo, etc.). Then I perform a leaf count which is just as it sounds, counting all the leaves in the book that would have been involved in the printing process (this excludes things like blank leaves at the front and back, and illustrations that would have been inserted after printing).  Next is the collation formula. This step involves identifying signature marks that appear throughout the text and then, using the pattern in which they appear, forming a signing statement. The signatures consist of letters and numbers at the bottom of the page that, along with other clues, informed the binder of the order in which pages should be arranged before binding. The last step is to identify the pagination, or, how the pages are numbered and where mistakes are made. All of this description is put into a formula that looks much like an algebraic statement:

8°: A8 a8 B-I8 L-R8 T-2M8 2N4 3A8 3a4 3B-3F8 (K8 S8  3F8 missing; 2D6 missing, removed); [$4 (-3A2, 3a4) signed; missigning V4 as U4]; 345 leaves; [32] 1-544 [545-552]; 2[24] 1-78 [79] [misnumbering 68 as 63, 78 as 73, 206 as 106, 479 as 463, and 266 as 96].

Look confusing? In my next post I will explain the formula and some of the terminology associated with bibliographic description. Stay tuned!


permalink | Published: Monday, 9 September, 2013, 12:05 PM