An Introduction to Descriptive Bibliography Methods and Copy-Specific Archival Description of Printed Books, 1450-1900 (MARC ed., Rev. 10/14/11)


 This document is intended only as a quick overview and checklist of aspects of printed books which bear evidence of their manufacture and use.  For clarification, ask your instructor or consult Philip Gaskell, A New Introduction to Bibliography (New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll, 1977, rev. ed. 1995 [and use the ’95 edition—the revisions were important!]).  Skim read it before using it to become familiar with its structure.  At some point, read it on-screen, in MS-Word, to readily use the embedded hyperlinks to images located on the Internet. 

This document is intended to be used by two different kinds of readers: students doing bibliographic analysis prior to copy-specific catalog enhancement of OLLI records for the Bright Project, and students studying early printed book and manuscript history.  This accounts for two unusual aspects of its construction and contents.  If students are not working with the Bright Project, but are working on the English 341 laboratories, they can ignore the MARC record instructions, though they may come in handy if students decide to start working regularly in Special Collections.

The order in which a bibliographic analyst examines a book is not the order in which information is stacked in a MARC record for cataloging.  MARC cataloging codes are indicated periodically throughout this document in bracketed, boldface sections that begin with the phrase Marc field: to aid quick searching.

In deference to the needs of the English 341 students, this introduction covers several kinds of evidence of peculiar interest to them.  Not all evidence studied by analytical bibliography will be used in copy-specific cataloging.  Some evidence will be too unremarkable to record (e.g., wove paper in a post-1850 book), and some will not deviate from the standard description of the edition found in OCLC records for the edition.  The student of book history is interested in all of the evidence for every book.  The careful Bright Project analyst still will routinely check the copy in hand rather than assuming that it is merely a duplicate of every other copy.  For instance, it is not unheard of for pre-1850 books to be incorrectly listed as “fol.” or “Fo” or “2o” (i.e., “folio” format) in a WorldCat description because a cataloger used page height rather than printing evidence to determine format (see “Format” below).  To that (incorrect) methodology, any “big book” is a “folio.”  The same would be true of such a cataloger’s guesses about quarto, octavo, and other format sizes for early books printed on “laid paper” with chainlines and watermarks, from whose position proper print format can be determined.  Also, binding, provenance, and other copy-specific information, usually is not found in most WorldCat descriptions, but copies held in research libraries routinely carry that information, and descriptions of our Special Collections pre-1800 books (and some unusual post-1800 books) should include it.

Additional sources for vocabulary and history abound, but Keith Wease’s glossary of modern collecting terms may help, especially if you are interested in buying books, yourself:  For actual catalog enhancement descriptions entered in MARC records, though, follow the vocabulary located in the black binder at the bibliographic analysts’ station in the archives.


I.  Cover and binding condition and type and era:

[MARC field: Binding is a complex field in MARC and can be listed twice, once in the 563 field as a local note, and once in the 655 7_ field as a subject heading.  Remember to make the note in both fields.  See the black binder for specific descriptive binding terms and use them as they appear.  Do not make up binding descriptions, because no one will think to search under an informal term.  Examples of MARC binding entries:

655  7 Raised bands (Binding) |2rbbin

655  7 Binders tickets (Binding) |2rbbin ]

Major print resources for studying bindings: Mirjam Foot, The History of Bookbinding as a Mirror of Society (London: British Library, 1998) 686.3 F687h; Stuart Bennett, Trade Bookbinding in the British Isles, 1660-1800 (New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 2004) 686.3 B472t 2004  .


Leather bindings (calf, goat, sheep, cloth)—all but “cloth” can safely be called “leather” if you are not sure of the source.


Original early vs. C17, C18, C19, and C20 rebinding—(how to tell if an old book has been rebound:):  Cloth bindings are modern and are associated with bindings created for trade publishing rather than limited edition or rare-book binding (i.e., C19-21).   Original bindings almost always are valuable evidence, and it is worth some effort to determine whether the book has been rebound.  Rebinding worn books for practical purposes was common in pre-1700 books, but between 1800 and the current era, book collectors often had rare early books sumptuously rebound.  Sometimes it saved the book, but at the cost of the binding’s evidence. and it nearly always reduced the size of the book.          

            Firm, moist, tight, fine leather bindings, especially with gold tooling, are seventeenth- to nineteenth-century work unless they are Turkish or other Islamic, non-European bindings (see examples of Ottoman bindings vs. contemporary European-English bindings at:

If the book is C17-C19, and its cover is gold-tooled, the binding may be original. 

            Leather with blind tooling (patterns cut or pressed into the leather but not embellished with gold or pigment) and a flat spine is likely to be earlier, perhaps fifteenth- to sixteenth century, and if it is not too “fresh-looking,” the binding may be original. See e.g.,

            Leather with raised “bands” running horizontally across the spine is old and rare and usually original, but cheaper books printed later were still bound in the old style by their owners into the C18 (see examples:

            If the cover is stiffened with wood, it is old and rare and original unless someone has made it as a modern facsimile of Medieval work.  See examples at:


            After examining the exterior for evidence, look inside the book at the “text block” on the page (see below) to see whether the text block fits squarely on the page (vs. being recut crookedly by rebinding), crowds the margins, etc.  Look at the header (and footer, esp. signature marks [e.g., A1, A2, etc.]) to see whether page numbers or short titles are clipped or missing.  If the edges of the pages of age-browned pages are suspiciously pale or have been gilded, painted, etc. and are very sharp, it’s likely they were cut and treated during binding.  Finally, compare the page height with the page height in the standard bibliographic description on WorldCat—if it’s shorter, and if any of those signs noted above are present, the book almost certainly has been rebound.  If you spot a strange “tag” of paper folded inward from the fore-edge corner, it is a “témoin” (Fr. “witness,” also called “fugitive corner” in bibliographic literature) because it’s a remnant of the original, larger page that the bookbinder’s plough missed.  Do not remove these and always note their location, and when measuring the page height and width, use the témoin’s dimensions to infer the size of the pre-plough page.

            See examples of C15 to early C16 Aldine Press books rebound in the styles of increasingly more modern eras, especially the influence of Islamic geometric gold-tooled ornamentation on C18-20 Anglo-European bindings:


What old bindings are made of and can contain (more texts!):  The bands of the oldest bindings sometimes are made of parchment manuscript strips to strengthen the printed gatherings’ sewing.  Such “binders’ waste” today is sought for evidence of MSS and editions which did not survive intact, and can be catalogued as a separate item in some collections.  Some non-valuable early books containing particularly valuable earlier fragments are unbound and sacrificed to make the fragments completely accessible.  See e.g.,

“Sewing guards,” which can be fond on the inside of each gathering in very thick bound books, also can be made of recycled manuscript parchment.  They are intended to keep the sewing from pulling through the paper.  Resources and further reading: in addition to the hyperlinked resources above, see Paul Needham, The Printer and the Pardoner: an unrecorded indulgence printed by William Caxton for the Hospital of St. Mary Rounceval, Charing Cross (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1986) 686.2 C38Sn 1986.


Finding the gathering’s sewing points: Look at the bottom or top of the book’s leaves and note the pattern of folded sheets, and open the book so that your fingers grasp all of one complete gathering.  Then open the gathering to its center—but DO NOT OVER-STRESS THE PAGES BY ATTEMPTING TO OPEN A TIGHT BINDING TOO WIDE!  (See “brittle books” below.)  Old books usually are not made to open flat.  A sewn binding will contain four or more sets of threads plunging through the fold in pairs.  A modern (C20-21) glued or “perfect” binding will contain no sewing.  Be careful because “perfect” bindings tend to split apart at the back.  Check the publication date and be especially careful when seeking the sewing in any book published after about 1930, when Penguin and other publishers introduced the glued binding.  Follow the instructions below, but mainly we look for gathering information (folded and sewn sheet groups) as evidence of the printed edition’s “format” (see below).


End bands, head bands, etc.: leather, string/twine, MS parchment strips, etc.

(See examples of their use as functional, and decorative, parts of the spine:


Clasps, edge guards, etc.: Metal or leather clasps that hold the boards together at the fore-edge, and sometimes the top and bottom of the binding, were invented to help important books survive what were expected to be long years of heavy use.  Edge guards, bosses (metal points riveted through the boards), and other ironmongery were used to protect books’ covers from damage by raising them off the surface when laid on their sides, and by armoring the most likely points of contact.  These usually are signs of very old books, but also can be found on sentimental or religious volumes (e.g., Bibles) because of their popular association with ancient authority.  See examples at:


Sewing condition: tight (no play in the gatherings or boards), loose (some play in the gatherings and/or boards), cocked (binding loosened unevenly so the pages no longer line up on the vertical with the boards when lying at rest), boards loose, boards off, partially or completely unbound (increasing stages of binding decomposition).

            Gatherings: conjoint vs. disjoint leaves (cancels and inserts)—see “Format” below; binding in 3s, 4s, 5s, 6s, “eights and fours” etc.; preliminary matter vs. the printer’s edition (see “Format” below).


“Broadsides”:  Single-leaf printed pages, often intended for public posting and hand-circulation, intentionally left unbound, though collectors sometimes bound their collections together.  See “1o” in the “Format” section, below.


Book title location as a possible indicator of a book’s age: handwritten on the fore-edge of the paper parallel to the long axis of the page, old, usually pre-1650;  handwritten on the fore-edge of the paper perpendicular to the long axis of the paper, old/transitional, mid- to late-C17; handwritten on the spine horizontally, C16-17 collectors’ libraries; printed on the spine horizontally, rebound C18? (e.g., see The Spyte of Spaine, 1628); printed on the spine vertically, rebound C18-20 or original C19-contemporary.  For vertical fore-edge titling in C16-17 books, see the Mela and Valerius Maximus editions here:

Resources and further reading: Stuart Bennett, Trade Bookbinding in the British Isles 1660-1800 (New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll P and British Library, 2004; “Glossary of Book Binding Terms,” The Book Arts Web, available online at; “Hand Bookbindings from Special Collections in the Princeton University Library: Plain and Simple to Grand and Glorious,” The Princeton University Library, available online at



II. Page Substrates (Paper)—

[MARC Field: Paper information is coded as “Publishing Evidence” in field 655, for example,

655  7 Antique laid papers (Paper) |2rbpap

655  7 Marbled papers (Paper) |2rbpap

655  7 Vatmans tears (Paper) |2rbpap ]

Major printed resources and further reading: Alan Stevenson, "Paper as Bibliographic Evidence," The Library 5th Series XVII:3 (September 1962) [photocopied excerpt available from Arnie Sanders] 197-204, and "Watermarks Are Twins," Studies in Bibliography 4 (1951-52) 57-91.  "Watermarks" is available online at: (Use the "Browse by Volume" menu in the left frame and click on "4"--Stevenson's article is the fourth.


Brittle Paper:  Changes in paper-making technology in the C19-20 led to an abandonment of linen rags as the basis from which paper was made, and to the adoption of papers made from wood pulp, instead.  Early pulp papers were chemically stable, but the introduction of certain chemical bleaching processes caused paper to be made with a significant residue of acid.  Over time, exposure to atmospheric moisture causes these papers to become extremely brittle, eventually resulting in whole books disintegrating into dusty fragments.  If you encounter a book in this condition, do not attempt to “operate” it, but report it to the Circulation staff if it is in the general collection or to the Special Collections Librarian if it is in the archives.  See the “Brittle Paper” web page for images and further explanation:


How to Analyze Stable Paper Books:

            First, hold an open page against cool light and check for chain lines, trenchefilles, water marks and counter-marks (all signs of “laid” paper vs. “wove” paper.  Wove paper would be rarely found in books printed from 1757-1807, but very common thereafter.  Laid paper still was being made, and is made today, but it becomes rare to find whole books made from it once the stocks of laid paper were used up and replaced by the newer, cheaper paper.

            Look for paper-making and aging artifacts: “vatman’s tears,” foxing (oxidation browning at the edges), staining, worm-holes, isolated instances of brittleness (causes and treatment—see “Brittle Paper” above).

Resources and further reading: David Gants, A Digital Catalogue of Watermarks and Type Ornaments Used by William Stansby in the Printing of “The Workes of Bejiamin Jonson (London: 1616).  Available online at; and Alan Stephenson, “Watermarks Are Twins,” Studies in Bibliography 4 (1951-52) 58-94.  Available online at:, and The WWW Watermark Archive Initiative, available online at

            The “chainlines” are the dim vertical or horizontal stripes seen behind most of the images of watermarks.  Chainline orientation, alone, will not tell a book’s format, but in combination with the location of watermarks and countermarks created during the paper’s manufacture, the format often can be determined or at least estimated (see below).  Because the spaces between chainlines correspond exactly to the construction of the unique paper mold which produced the paper, they constitute an infallible code for identifying paper from the same physical source, and because paper molds had a typical life-span of only about nine months, that also can assist approximate dating of the earliest a book could have been printed (Gants, desbib instruction, U.Va., July 2006).


Paper Sizes:  Hand-press-era paper was made by hand, a sheet at a time, using a mold and “deckle” which fit over the wet paper in the mold and helped shape the amorphous “stuff,” made of mashed linen rags, into a rectangular shape.  Dumped out on a felt and flattened by successive layers of felt and paper, the water in it was slowly squeezed out and the paper dried to form a printable sheet bearing marks from the specific mold which made it (see “chainlines,” “watermark” and “countermark” in “Format,” below).  Water drops that fell from the mold, or from the vatman’s body, and struck the still wet paper, splashed away some of the stuff to create light, roughly circular spots, “vatman’s tears,” visible like the chainlines when the page is viewed when lit from behind.  Because presses were all built to the same dimensions, and pressmen had to be able to calculate precisely how many sheets of paper to buy for a given edition, paper was made in four sizes whose dimensions were regulated by law, much as vitamin or drug composition is now regulated.  The four sizes, given different names in England and the Continent were:

Imperial / Imperiale (50 x 74 cm.),

Royal / Reale (44.5 x 61.5 cm.),

Median / Mezzena (34.5 x 51.5), and

Chancery / Recute (31.5 x 45). 

To account for trimming for original binding, subtract a centimeter or so at the top and bottom of the short dimension, and you have the maximum likely size of an extant, un-rebound early folio edition (e.g., 48 cm. [very rare!]; 42.5 cm. [ditto];  32.5 cm.; and 29.5 cm.).  Dividing the long dimension by 2 will give you the typical pre-binding sizes of the various quarto editions produced (“Imperial” = 37 cm.; “Royal” = 30.75 cm.; “Median” = 25.75 cm.; and “Recute” = 22.5 cm.).  Original page widths also can be estimated once format (below) has been determined.  When leaf heights or widths vary, due to irregular trimming, obviously one should take the largest measure in the volume as coming closest to the original size of the page.



III. Format—

            Determining format in early books is made possible by the presence of chainlines and watermarks.  Wove paper was introduced in 1757, based on the invention of technology to produce very fine cold-drawn wire mesh for the molds, and it produced a printed text substrate which presents a uniform appearance when held up to the light.  Before this invention, laid paper, produced on a mold made from a coarser grid of wires, preserved in its structure the chainlines, watermarks and counter-marks created by the rectangular hand-made mold in which each sheet of paper was made.  Watermarks were designs invented by paper manufacturers to identify their product, and countermarks appear to identify individual two-person paper-making teams, but chainlines are a common indicator of hand-made or “laid” paper until the machine manufacturers of “wove” paper (see below) invent the “dandy roll” (1830) to imprint rolls of machine-made paper with false chainlines and watermarks (which are identifiable because of their ruthless regularity between sheets).  The presence of chainlines with irregular spacing and vatman’s tears are reliable indicators that the paper is actually handmade or “laid.”

            Because chainlines run parallel to the short axis of the full sheet, and the two “marks” are located along the centerline of the sheet in the center of its upper and lower halves, such sheets which have been imprinted, folded, and cut apart to make “conjugate leaves” in a bound book can be imaginatively reconstructed by whether the bound leaves’ chainlines are vertical or horizontal, and by where the watermarks fall on the bound sheet.  This tells us the “format” in which the book was printed.  Format is not a synonym for “size,” though it has come to be used casually to mean so.  Format, especially in the hand-press period (1450-1800) indicates how many sheets for how many books could be printed at one or two pulls of the press. 

Major library resources: The anatomy of a book [videorecording] : format in the hand-press period, [and] the making of a Renaissance book / Book Arts Press.  (Charlottesville, VA: Book Arts Press, 2003).  "Originally produced in 1991, The anatomy of a book discusses book format and format identification in regard to books printed on the hand press on hand-made paper. The making of a Renaissance book covers cutting a type punch; making a copper strike and justifying the matrix; casting and dressing the type; composition, imposition and proof-reading; inking and running off the sheets; stop-press corrections."  This DVD contains both videos.  


            To over-simplify, these are the standard formats:


1)  A “broadsheet” (“1o”) might be printed on whole sheets, which would produce horizontal chainlines with both a watermark and (if present) a countermark on each sheet.  If printed “two-up” or two-at-a-time on sheets of large stock and cut in half, the chain lines of the broadsheet would run vertically and some sheets would have a watermark in their middle, and others would have the countermark in the middle, but they would not have been folded and sewn, though they might have been folded for storage (with no sewing holes, to distinguish them from folded loose sheets from a folio edition that was broken up).


2) A “folio” (“2o” or “Fo”), short for “bifolium” or two-leaf, is printed two pages at a time, folded in the middle, gathered together and bound so that its chainlines are vertical and, when the watermark or counter mark appears, they fall almost perfectly in the center of the sheet.


3)  A “quarto” (“4o”) is printed four leaves at a time, folded in the middle, turned, and folded again.  The top of the fold is cut by the binder’s plough though some quartos are shipped “uncut” so that customers can cut them or leave them uncut, a strange collectors’ obsession with having a book as nearly “untouched” as possible.  This produces four-leaf gatherings of two conjugate leaves each which can be sewn together into the binding.  A quarto format book’s chainlines will be horizontal and half of the watermark and countermark will emerge roughly half-way down the page in the “gutter” produced by the binding.  (Printing quartos by “half-sheet imposition” was used for short books and took advantage of the fact that you could cut the sheet before you folded it and get two books’ leaves from the same sheet in half the press time [see Gaskell 90-91, Fig. 48-49].)


4)  An “octavo” (“8o” or “8vo”) is usually printed eight leaves at a time, folded, turned, folded, turned again, and refolded.  Such a “common octavo” gathering must be cut on the top and fore-edge before the gathering can be opened for reading.  An octavo format book’s chainlines will be vertical like a folio’s, but the watermark will not fall in the center, but rather a quarter of it will occur in a corner of the sheet.  With luck, you can reassemble the watermark by drawing its quarters as you find them scattered among leaves in a gathering.  Like quartos, octavo sheets can be imposed on the press in half-sheets to allow two books’ leaves to be printed at once [Gaskell 94-5, Fig. 52-3]).


5)  A “duodecimo” (“12o” or “12mo”) is printed twelve leaves at a time, and it can be cut and folded in six different patterns depending on which produced the most finished leaves in the fewest runs through the press (Gaskell 96-101, Fig. 54-59).  This produces a very tight bundle of paper which takes more skill to flatten squarely with a book press before cutting and stitching.  The chainlines will be horizontal like a quarto’s, but the watermarks will be cut in half either on the fore-edge, at the top of the leaf, or at the top of the gutter.


6)  A “sextidecimo” (“16o” or “16mo”) is printed sixteen leaves at a time, and can be imposed at least four different typical ways depending on whether it will be cut on the center line or 1/3 and 2/3, or cut once, twice or three times (Gaskell 102-5, Fig. 60-63).  The resulting book leaves will have the following chainline-watermark combinations: horizontal and quartered marks at the upper fore-edge corner (“sixteens”); vertical with the whole mark on one page like a folio but the mark will be nearly as large as the text block; vertical with half the watermark on the gutter like a quarto but again the mark’s size will nearly match the text block; horizontal and quartered on the upper corner of the fore-edge like an octavo, but double-folding of many gatherings should be detectable by their producing eight conjoined leaves alternating with four-leaf groups (“eights and fours”).


            More various imposition formulas existed, especially in the machine press period (1800-c. 1960), but uniformly they produced smaller books at each reduction in impressions per press cycle.  In the post 1800 period, format cannot easily be determined and page size (h x w in cm. or mm.) is used instead.  It is at this point that “format” and “size” begin to be confused, and library catalogues (including OCLC) often contain errors for pre-machine-press books as a result.  Especially suspect “folio” books designated only by size.  A quarto printed on the largest size paper sheet and bound generously with little cutting down might resemble the size of a folio printed on the smallest (“Chancery”/”Recute”), especially if the folio was heavily cut down in rebinding.  Page size comes first because it is an objectively determinable fact, but it is not always the most useful fact about the book you hold in your hand.

            Format matters to scholars because it can indicate whether the printer was treating the book as a luxury good or a commercial venture for less-wealthy readers.  Smaller format books can be printed more quickly using less paper and leather binding, so they can be sold more cheaply.  The most famous example of an influential small-format series comes to us in the form of the “Aldine octavos,” a series of editions of classical Greek and Latin texts printed in Venice by Aldus Manutius and his heirs between 1494 and 1597.  These mass-produced classics were a cornerstone of Renaissance humanist learning for non-nobles and might be said to have supercharged the spread of this influential collection of foundation texts. 

            William Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde, England’s first printer and his pressman who came to print with Caxton’s fonts after Caxton died in 1492, strategically used quarto and octavo editions to “test market” books that they later printed in folio, and sometimes printed smaller format versions of folio editions that appear to have had noble patrons underwriting their production.  That enabled the printers to develop the popular reading market while simultaneously earning profits in the older economy that depended upon noble patronage.  Reprints of folio editions, even the smallest “Chancery” folios, was a sign of considerable customer demand for the text.  For instance, de Worde’s six editions of Caxton’s original English translation of The Golden Legend (1483), the first published ten years after his master’s edition and the last in 1527, three years before the start of Henry VIII’s campaign against Roman Catholic worship of the saints, suggests that this huge (nearly 450 leaves), Chancery folio edition was extremely popular among the more numerous commoner readers.

Resources and further reading: In aedibus Aldi: the legacy of Aldus Manutius and his press.  Friends of the Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, 1995.  Available online at:


IV.  “Preliminaries”—(def., pages printed usually after the main text was printed and sometimes varying from edition to edition, or even from book to book within a press run, containing prefaces, dedicatory poems, illustrations, and after the late C16, tables of contents).

Major print resources:

Paste-downs (N.B.: almost always introduced at the bindery, not by the printer with the rest of the text in-press, until almost always post-1750-1800)—check for bookplates, owners’ inscriptions, sale catalogue information especially prices (esp. dated prices!), and other copy-specific owner and reader evidence.  For specific information on Bookplates, Ownership Evidence, and Provenance, etc., see their specific sections below.

            Some pastedowns are made of printers’ waste containing text from other editions (see examples


Frontispiece—usually an engraving (after c. 1500) printed separately from text and added at bindery

Title page—usually set by printer—check for owners’ inscriptions, dates, notes

Prefaces, dedicatory poems, prose dedications, introductions (usually in unlabeled signatures or lower-case signature prior to capital alphabet, viz. a1, a2, a3, before main text signatures A1, A2, A3, etc.

Colophon—in the earliest printed books, before printers identified themselves, the city and date of printing on the title page, they used the manuscript practice of recording that information at the end of the text.  Finding a colophon indicates the book is quite old.  For an example and explanation see “What is a colophon?” at:


Main Text Page Size (in cm., h x w, measured on largest pages esp. if rebound)—

            Measure and compare our copy with std. desbib description.  If our copy is smaller than the standard desbib description, our copy was probably rebound, at which time the binder would trim its pages using a “plough.”  Look for uneven, unbalanced, or unusually cramped margins, clipped headers and/or page numbers, pre-rebinding readers’ marginalia.  If our copy is larger than the standard desbib description, that is very important because the standard may be based only on copies cut down in rebinding.  After the introduction of “wove paper,” which has no chainlines and may have no watermarks, paper size may have to suffice to replace “format” for describing the document.


The Text Block—

The text block size is rarely included in copy-specific catalogue enhancement, but it is of interest in determining whether the book has been cut down in rebinding.

Size from top to bottom margin and from side to side margin, in centimeters, h x w, excluding headers/footers/printed marginal notes

Columns of text (single, double, etc.)

Lines per standard page

Characters per line (avg.) and kinds of fonts in use

Presence of headers, footers, marginal notes (printed)—also see rebinding notes

Presence of foliation vs. pagination (at top of page, to guide reading)—The earliest printed books’ pages were not numbered in any fashion.  This followed manuscript book-making practice.  Book owners might add numbers to the upper right corner of one side of each half of a bifolium (i.e., folded and sewn sheet) to indicate each folio’s number, but the reverse usually was left blank.  The right or “outside” sides of a folio are indicated using those numbers, though scholars also sometimes add the Latin recto (right), usually abbreviated “r,”  to indicate the page to the right of the fold (e.g., 1r, 2r, 3r).  Even when only the recto was numbered, the reverse side of the recto would be referred to as the verso (e.g., 1v. 2v, 3v).  In the earliest days of printing, typesetters followed scribal practice and provided no numbers at all, but by the end of the fifteenth century, foliation became commonplace, indicated by “Fol.” and a roman numeral in the upper right recto corner.  Pagination followed decades later.

Presence of signature marks (at bottom of page, to guide binding): compare with OCLC description to see if we have a complete copy.

Resources and further reading: R. A. Sayce, Compositional Practices and the Localization of Printed Books 1500-1800 (first published in The Library, 5th Series XXI (1966), rpt. Oxford: Oxford UP and the Bibliographical Society, 1979.


V.  Ownership Evidence (Provenance)—

[MARC field 690, 692, 693: Local Notes: e.g., 692 1 4 "Bequest of Sara Haardt Mencken, [Class of] (,y20--) bookplate.  The following headings are subfields of Provenance:  Annotations (Provenance), Armorial bindings (Provenance), Armorial bookplates (Provenance), Booksellers’ labels (Provenance) ,x[Name] ,2 local, Booksellers’ stamps (Provenance) ,x [Name] ,2 local.   In addition, previous owners’ signatures are recorded in the field 700 1_ (see below) to aid scholars seeking evidence of early literacy practices, etc.  See the black binder for a detailed description of how to type these fields into Innovation.]


Owners’ signatures—

[MARC Field:  700  1_ For former owners discovered in book census project; names & dates, for example,

'b' 700 1_ Bright, James Wilson,|d1852-1926.|4fmo (former owner)]

            Owners’ signatures are a form of “Annotation” that always are included in copy-specific catalogue enhancements and are usually imaged unless they are so numerous as to call into question their importance.  Obviously, the identity of the signature’s author might make it inherently important to record and image.  See the “Provenance research” section below for tips on how to identify the authors.

            Early book owners (pre-1700) tended to indicate their ownership of books by signing them, often including the year in which they purchased the book, and sometimes including the city in which they lived.  Especially in the manuscript era, Incunabula period (1450-1500), and Early Modern period (1500-1700), books often were expensive relative to the price of other goods and services, and ownership was jealousy guarded.  Title page signatures often are inked over by subsequent owners, as if they sought to eradicate evidence of anyone else’s claim on the volume.  For this reason, some owners signed books on interior pages, sometimes hiding the signatures in the “gutter” formed by the binding.  Some signatures appear to be less a sign of ownership than of readers’ interaction with the text and aspirations to written literacy, as in the case of the five young men’s signatures and pen practice in Goucher’s copy of George Wither’s Abuses Stript and Whipt:or Satyricall essayes” (1617).

            This kind of evidence is highly prized because it helps us establish the chain of custody through which the books passed before coming to our collection.  Scholars now use this information to develop evidence about literacy rates in various regions and sectors of the economy, as well as by gender, and to establish orthographic (handwriting) evidence for authorship of subsequent marginalia in the same volume.  (See “Marginalia” below.)



[MARC Field: Bookplates (Provenance) are detailed twice in MARC.  The second instance where we give information about a bookplate and provenance is in the 690-693 local notes fields.]  

            Bookplates always are included in copy-specific catalogue enhancements and should be imaged.  In one sense, they constitute another “publication” hidden within the covers of the book, itself.  In addition to the resources at the end of this section, see the “Provenance research” section below for tips on how to identify the

            As early as the mid-C15, book owners began designing personalized bookplates to be attached to the inner front cover’s pastedown leaf.  The bookplate can be an even better indication of ownership provenance than a signature because of the distinctive design of each plate, and the fact that over a century of bookplate collecting and study have produced many popular indices of sample bookplate images.  Lack of a signature might prevent identification of subsequent marginalia’s authorship, but not infrequently bookplate owners also signed their books, further evidence of the profound attraction of book ownership for the Early Modern and Modern reader.


Resources and further reading: a searchable index of historical bookplates at the University of Texas, Austin Libraries and Culture web site (; more examples, the English Bookplate Society ( Clicking on the following link will perform a Google search on images of bookplates currently indexed by that search engine:

Bookplate reading and examples in the print collection:

William Bowdoin, The Rise of the Bookplate (NY: A. Wessels, 1901)  096 B78 [Pages 49-207 are plates representing six centuries of bookplates.]  James P. Keenan, The Art of the Bookplate (NY: Barnes & Noble, 2003)  769.52 K265a



            Pages containing marginalia usually are good candidates for digital imaging and copy-specific catalogue description enhancement.  Exceptions for imaging would include instances when the marginalia is distinctly modern (post-1900), trivial in nature (an underlined word), or so profuse that a few examples would have to suffice. Used somewhat loosely to describe all reader inscriptions within the text, including interlinear writing, marginalia supplies valuable evidence of readers’ response to texts.  Even when readers are merely recopying what they read in print, the selection of the passage is of interest to the scholar studying reader-response criticism, history of literacy, socioeconomics of book-ownership, etc. 


Provenance research tools and techniques—

            The provenance or ownership history of a book always is important for copy-specific catalogue enhancements.  Once a name has been deciphered from a signature or bookplate, it becomes possible to search for who this previous owner might have been.  When plates or signatures are dated, the job is significantly easier, but some simple tests can help establish the owner’s “terminus a quo” and “terminus ad quem” (“limit from which” year and “limit to which” year the owner lived—also, the owner’s “termini”).  Unless the owner signed a piece of paper that later was used as a pastedown, the book’s publication date establishes the earliest date at which the owner could have been alive.  Subtract roughly 80 or 100 years and you have a probable earliest birth year, though the likely birth year would be about 20 years later.  The owner’s “hand” or handwriting style also can provide clues to the probable era in which s/he wrote.  The presence of other owners’ signatures with dates sometimes enables us to roughly date the signature (see “Handwriting reading and dating tools” below).

            If you are lucky enough to have a dated signature or bookplate, you often can discover an English book owner’s identity by looking her/him up in the Dictionary of National Biography (920.42 D55 ).  For persons living after 1927, use the supplemental volumes published up to the 1970s.  Persons not represented in the OED still may be known to historians, political scientists, and other scholars, who would publish articles about them in scholarly journals searchable using JSTOR with the appropriate fields checked.  If a “Subject” search does not yield results, search again without restriction.  Usually, people who own books “leave tracks” in history.  If the scholarly approach does not yield an identity, use genealogical resources that abound on the Internet to search for the family name, and try to establish the branch of the family to whom the owner belonged.  That can yield surprising results when all else has failed.


Resources and further reading: Medieval owners, or the Medieval ancestors of Early Modern owners, can sometimes be traced by family name using Some Notes on Medieval English Geneology’s “Families This Site” link, and their “Sources” link offers help with paleography, geography, and other historical data of the era (;


Handwriting reading and dating tools—

            Early handwriting differs from modern much as early type fonts differ from modern ones, and for the same reasons.  The letter shapes are purely conventional, and change over time much like fashions in dress or food.  In any one era, however, writers tend to form letters in similar fashions, though to our eyes they may seem to differ significantly from one another.  Differences usually are accounted for by the writer’s profession (e.g., court hands designed for aesthetic drama vs. secretary hands designed for speed and relative ease of reading) and the speed with which the writer worked (e.g., marginalia usually are scribbled quickly and use more abbreviations than formal documents). 

            “Scribal hands,” originating in the Medieval period, usually are categorized in eras or “schools” from oldest to most recent.  In the earliest surviving manuscripts from Roman and early Medieval times, scribes tended to concentrate on regularity, but presentation manuscripts, especially those containing sacred texts (breviaries, books of hours, bibles) often were written in heavily ornamented hands.  Think of them like “court” documents for a higher “Lord”’s eyes.  Scribal abbreviations for common words were far more common in manuscript than in printed books, but early printers followed scribal abbreviation practices for most of the Incunabula period (1450-1500) and some persisted throughout the Early Modern period.  A few survive today, like “&” which is a condensation of the two characters forming “et” (Latin “and”).  Abbreviations are most common in books like breviaries and books of hours, whose contents were used somewhat like prompts for texts that were recited so often every year that owners knew them by heart.  Abbreviation, in handwriting or print, also signals a kind of visual sophistication level expected of writer and reader, as if completely writing out the word or phrase would be condescending.

            The language in which the hand writes also presents puzzles to the modern reader.  Medieval Latin can be decoded by patient practice with a dictionary, and Google searches on short exact text strings often can identify biblical passages by linking readers to online versions of the Rheims-Douay Bible, the Vulgate Latin Bible, and various regional or local forms of breviary or book of hours texts.  The vocabulary of Middle English usually requires a specialist, but students who have taken English 240 or 330 (as the Chaucer Seminar) are likely to do well.  Early Modern text may include now obsolete words that may be represented in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is available online from the Library web site:

The Lexicons of Early Modern English site (U. Toronto) offers a searchable database containing word uses in context from 1450-1702 using its “Advanced Search” screen, and you can narrow the year range to get more focused results:


Resources and further reading:  for Medieval manuscripts, the “bible” is Albert Derolez, The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books: From the Twelfth to the Early Sixteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003).  Derolez’ classifications of various hands are based on minute differences, but some more general observations will be made available via this document at a later date.  Marc Drogin, Medieval Calligraphy: Its History and Technique N.Y.: Dover, 1980).  Drogin, in this introduction to Medieval script for the general public, presents a good introductory set of examples of scripts based on some common names for categorizing them, but you will note that other writers subdivide or name differently the scripts Drogin describes.  This kind of description takes considerable practice but, over several years, students can develop the same fluency reading MSS as they have reading early print documents, whose print fonts are based on Medieval scribal hands but are more regular and abbreviate less frequently.  For a more detailed description, see Dr. Diane Tillotson’s “Medieval Writing: Index of Scripts,” available online at:


            For Early Modern hands,  the Cambridge University “English Handwriting 1500-1700” online course in Renaissance handwriting will be useful for learning to read, and to date (approximately) the earliest writing in the collection:; “Early Modern Palaeography” (David Postles, Leicester U.) covers roughly the same era with different examples (; if you think your hand is C18, try the English National Archives “Palaeography” course, which has examples to 1800 (