Beginning Bibliography: Five Favourite Texts


Beginning Bibliography begins on Monday. We don’t set any reading that can’t be accessed for free, so this month’s Beginnings article highlights my top five book purchases in the field.

1. Bowers for the Detail. Love it or loathe it, you cannot ignore Bowers’s tome, Principles of Bibliographical Description (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1949). You would imagine bibliographers to be obsessed with detail, and Bowers was certainly that. I first read this book in 1990 and in thirty years, I’ve not found a single challenge in bibliographic description for which I have not been able to find an answer within it. If only he had been able to write in an engaging, encouraging style, I’d go so far as to say we would need no other book on how to describe a printed book. Alas! He conveys all of the detail but none of the love, and I have met some very distinguished bibliographers who have confided to me they have never been able to read his Principles from cover to cover, only dip in and out of it as and when required. Copies are available from Betterworld Books and second-hand from Abe and Abe UK.

2. Esdaile for Clarity. Often overlooked by teachers of Bibliography, and with his work out of print now, Esdaile’s Manual of Bibliography (London: Allen & Unwin and the Library Association, 1932) was the main text used in UK library schools until Gaskell took over as the set reading. Later editions were written by Roy Stokes, Professor of the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies, University of British Columbia, and author of The Bibliographical Companion (No. 4 on this list). I have a particular fondness for the first edition – Esdaile really understood what students need to know, and devoted the right proportion of his text to explaining the aspects of bibliographic description in which a newcomer is likely to need guidance. He writes beautifully. As his colleague Ernest Savage said in his obituary, “He was an artist in lucid, pure English, at once light and fluent, dignified and impressive, even when his subject was bibliography.” That is no mean recommendation (even if it’s a bit of a sly dig at the field). If you decide to look for your own, copies can usually be found on Abe and Abe UK.

3. Gaskell for Practicality. A New Introduction to Bibliography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972; 2nd edition, 1995 and later printings) is the texbook par excellence for classes in Bibliography. The first half, dealing with the history of printing and binding has been surpassed and superseded by later works (notably those of Eisenstein), but the second part, which deals with how we analyse a printed book and create its bibliographic description is still the best guide we have. In particular, Gaskell’s tables to help us decide the format of a book, though disliked by some printers and print historians as overly simplified, really do provide a “quick diagnosis” that is correct more often than not (when we check it with other means). It is nowhere near as detailed as Bowers, but reading this book first is the quickest way into Principles of Description, since we can skip over the places they both say the same and focus instead on the parts Bowers covers that Gaskell does not. If you only have time to read one how to guide for Bibliography, this would be the one. New copies are available in various bookshops, including Betterworld, and secondhand copies can be found via Abe and Abe UK.

4. Stokes for Definition. Often overlooked for the more wryly English ABC for Book Collectors by John Carter, The Bibliographical Companion (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989; paperback edition, 2011) in fact contains far more than its distinguished predecessor. As Stokes himself put it, “During the more than forty years which I have been teaching bibliography, there have been many occasions on which students have asked, ‘What does _________ mean?’ Many such questions fell between John Carter’s ABC for book collectors, with its emphasis on book collecting, and Glaister’s Glossary of the book, with its concentration on book production. Between these two there was a gap, but there was also a great deal of overlap. Those terms which appear in both of those books as well as this one should be read in all three in order to achieve as wide a perspective as possible” (‘Introduction’). However, if you can only afford one guide to bibliographic terms, I commend to you the Companion. Abe and Abe UK usually have copies available.

5. Tanselle for Why It Matters. Bibliographers tend to fall into two categories of writer – those who make grand claims for the discipline, like McKerrow, McKenzie and Greg, and those who simply assume we all know why it is important and just plunge straight in telling us how to get it done. Esdaile, Gaskell and Bowers were all of this ilk (and it probably tells you something about me that all three of them are in my top five Bibliography texts while the others would make only my top ten). Tanselle’s Bibliographical Analysis: A Historical Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) not only tells us why Bibliography matters to us now, but also in the three earlier periods he identifies: before 1908; 1908-1945; and 1945-1969. (Spoiler alert: there were differing priorities and loci of activity across the history of the field). He then divides the actions of analysis into “manufacturing clues” and “design features” and examines each of these. In short, what sounds like the dryest and least practical of the texts I’m highlighting turns out to be full of practical hints and tips. New copies are available in various bookshops, including Betterworld, and Abe and Abe UK usually carry secondhand copies.

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