Links and Advice for Doing Descriptive Bibliography

Identifying Texts:  Can you recognize the book you are working with by its content or style?  If so, you can move on to identifying the edition.  If you cannot, you still have resources.  In pre-Internet days, identifying the author and title of an edition required decades of scholarly experience.  Today, even undergraduates often can identify an otherwise anonymous text they are working with by using the Internet.  Much of the world's literature has been digitized since Project Gutenberg first began a long-term global digitization project in 1971. 

        So-called "serious literature" was the first, but religious texts soon followed because their adherents considered a sacred duty to spread their scripture in the digital universe.  The trick lies in selecting a short enough phrase that is likely to be distinctive to the text in question, and using quotation marks to demarcate them, or a Google "exact word search," which does the same thing.  Using phrases which have become commonplace by use will turn up too many false hits.  Keep varying the search string based on the text available to you and concentrate on keeping the search string short. 

        If you are working with a manuscript, keep in mind that manuscript era texts vary far more from copy to copy than print editions, which tend to reproduce a fixed form of each text.  The Gutenberg 42-Line Bible, for instance, essentially fixed the form of the Vulgate Bible for all subsequent editions, with only minor substantive variants.  Manuscripts change in content according to scribal intention and scribal error, patron intention, and the contents of the exemplar from which the manuscript was copied.  If you get no hits on a series of varied "distinctive phrase exact word" searches, try taking the quotation marks off the search to see whether a near-miss can help direct you.  Also, make sure you get help interpreting the scribal hand, especially abbreviations.

Reading the Type and Roman Numerals:  Do you have a book printed in Gothic type that is driving you mad?  Try this link to a guide for Yale librarians that converts "Fraktur," the longest surviving Gothic type (German), into Roman letter forms.    Are you inexperienced at reading Roman numerals for dates, page numbers, and other pre-1600 (approximately) printed number conventions?  Try this link to a guide for Cincinnati high school students to teach them how to read their Roman numerals.  (Don't worry--your school system probably replaced the Roman numeral and cursive handwriting units with "how to log on to Facebook" and "Tweeting rhetoric.")  Do you have a book whose title page represents the date using the "old style" roman numerals with a "backward 'c'" for five hundred, etc.?  Try this link to a guide for that, and you have my sympathies.  Diabolical, those Romans!

Identifying Editions:  

        Before you start, review the main editorial decisions printers had to make when preparing an edition in the hand-press book period in Williams and Abbott, Chapter 5.

        Two major online resources make identification of print editions far easier than it was in the National Union Catalog days: WorldCat (look for "WorldCat Classic" under "Links") and the Karlsruhe Virtual Catalogue (abbreviated "KVK" in German) .   WorldCat's premium service is a subscription site, but is open to the public and searches the same library catalogs, though the search engine is less sophisticated.  Still, if you must work from outside Goucher's firewall-access to WorldCat, the ".org" version often will yield excellent results.  The Karlsruhe University searches European university, state library, and online bookseller catalogs just as WorldCat searches mainly English-speaking libraries in the United States.  For U.S. online booksellers,'s advanced search utility is the equivalent of what Karlsruhe allows you to search simultaneously with the non-commercial libraries. 

        Start with less specific searches at first, giving only authors' last names, the first words of the title, and the date of the edition (and perhaps the printer if a lot of editions of this work were being produced in a year).  Keep rechecking your reading of the type for the author and title, and recheck your Roman numerals for the date--those are common sources of errors.  Remember that most of the world's printed books have been cataloged somewhere.  If you are getting no hits, you probably are not entering the proper data into the proper search engine or you have not checked the proper database boxes in the Karlsruhe search engine.

        Be especially careful to double check the edition you think you have identified online against the bibliographic details of the text you hold in your hand.  Start with the format.  Is your book a folio, quarto, octavo, duodecimo, or some even smaller format?  Often multiple editions in the same year will be most easily distinguishable because they are printed in differing formats--printers have no interest in competing with each other with identical texts in identical formats in a small early book market.  Then double-check the author, title, printer, city, and date.  Finally, check foliation or pagination, and the binding signatures--a thorough count is the "gold standard," but for edition identification, just knowing where the foliation, pagination, or signatures start and stop gives a good initial test.  The presence or absence of illustrations, appendices, indexes, and other apparatus sometimes distinguish one edition from another, as well.

        If you are working with loose leaves from a disbound book, as in the English 241 Hand-Press Book Leaf Laboratory, you still can take advantage of the leaf's physical composition and contents. 

Full Bibliographic Description:  Once you believe you know what text you have and what edition it is from, start your bibliographic description, paying special attention to copy-specific details.  Some things which typically vary from copy to copy are page height (and width) because of binding, ownership signatures or marginalia or bookplates (provenance clues), bindings, and peculiar forms of damage or decoration added to the text after it was first produced.  For a step-by-step guide to descriptive bibliography and online resources for each type of data, click here.