Research aids: understanding catalog records

A number of posts and comments in The Collation have discussed the wonderful work that Folger catalogers do. But sometimes we all need assistance to fully grasp what information is being conveyed in those detailed Hamnet records. As I mentioned in a footnote in my last post, I find the RBMS/BSC Latin Place Names File a very useful resource in working with early book imprints, since the Latin form of place names given in imprints is sometimes so very different from the names by which I know of those places. So in this post I thought I would share some of the other resources that I use when trying to understand library records and book history. There’s an abundance of information out there that I draw on in doing research and in teaching, much too much to be all included here. For this post I decided to focus primarily on information that might help researchers understand the information they’re coming across in catalog records—things like understanding the imprint information and physical book properties. Even so, this list is just a small percentage of the helpful tools that are out there—please leave further suggestions in the comments below.

All of the resources here are open access, which means that anyone with an internet connection can use them. (I should note that although most of what The Collation highlights are Folger-produced resources, these are not from the Folger, although they are used by many of the staff here. Scholarship knows no bounds and without the work being done by scholars everywhere, our individual research would be much the poorer.)

Imprint: people and places

an imprint in Latin (with bonus Ben Jonson inscription!)

As I mentioned in my last post, the RBMS/BSC Latin Place Names File is a great resource for understanding Latin place names in their vernacular equivalent. Where exactly was a book printed when its place is identified as Leodii? Liège! But sometimes there’s additional information in Latin about a book’s publication. The imprint information for this dictionary is given as follows: “Leodii : Apud Henricum Houium, 1589.” In other words, this book was printed in Liège at the shop of Henricus Hovius in 1589. That’s pretty straightforward, but the Glossary of Common Latin Terms Found in Imprints of Early Printed Books provides instances of and assistance with more complicated examples. For instance, what do you make of this imprint, containing the names of two men, “Typis Iohannis Saurii : Impensis Pauli Egenolphi”? After looking it up in the glossary, you’ll know that it means that this imprint is identifying both the printer and the publisher: it was printed with the type of Johann Saur at the expense of Paul Egenolff.1

One of the endlessly perplexing things about early books is the variation in names; it’s not just the Latin place names that can trip you up but the variants and pseudonyms for printers that come into play. The CERL Thesaurus File, from the Consortium of European Research Libraries, collects forms of imprint places, imprint names, personal names and corporate names (including variant spellings, forms in Latin and other languages, and fictitious names) as found in material printed before the middle of the nineteenth century. It’s all well and good to recognize that “Apud Henricum Houium” is referring to a printer named Henricus Hovius, but did you know that the vernacular version of his name is Hendrik van den Hofen? The Thesaurus also links to records in Europeana, which can lead you to facsimiles and catalog records for that item. (See, for instance, a digitization of the University of Ghent’s copy of the Hovius-printed dictionary.) There’s lots more resources from CERL, but that’s for another post.

Book characteristics

an example of binding waste

Sometimes it’s not the imprint that’s giving you trouble, but the description of the book that’s opaque. Not sure what a “cancel” is? What does it mean to say that a book is foxed? Or that it has guide letters? Are you looking at a made-up copy? Is it bound in morocco? What in the world is Pforzheimer? Or Sabin? Does your book include waste? Or have yapp edges? John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors will answer all these questions, and more, in a wonderfully thorough and clear prose. The 8th edition, done with Nicholas Barker, has been put online as a pdf by the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers and it’s a doozy of a resource. I cannot recommend it enough.

Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors will help you understand what the terms mean, but sometimes it’s helpful to see depictions of those characteristics. The British Library’s Database of Bookbindings has been the best place to go for examples of binding features. You can browse their galleries or do a search for specific details.  (The Folger is currently developing a bindings database as well; email InsightBindings@folger.edu to volunteer to run the beta release through its paces.)

Other catalogs

One of the most valuable sources of information out there are catalogs. Hamnet is wonderfully detailed, but that’s no reason not to turn to other catalogs for assistance, whether to find more information about a book or to find locations holding other copies of that book. The Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC) identifies nearly every item printed from movable type before 1501, providing information on authors, short titles, the language of the text, printer, place and date of printing, and format; copy locations are noted if they have been verified, and links are provided to online digital facsimiles wherever possible. I like that the ISTC not only includes a list of references discussing each work, but that it allows you to expand those citations so that you can easily figure out that “Klebs” refers to Arnold C. Klebs’s Incunabula scientifica et medica: short title list (Bruges, 1938).

The English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) covers books printed between 1473 and 1800 that are in English or were printed in the British Isles or North America. Records in Hamnet of this material are drawn from ESTC records, so you won’t find information in the ESTC that isn’t in Hamnet for those books, except for the location of other copies of that book.2 One handy aspect of the ESTC is that they have recently begun adding links to facsimile copies on Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO), a very nice feature for those who have access to those subscription databases.

Most handy of all, I think, will be the Universal Short Title Catalogue (USTC), but that doesn’t unveil until November 22nd (<squeal>tomorrow!!</squeal>), so we’ll have to wait just a little bit longer to experience it in all its glory. But, once, unveiled, it will contain information about all books published in Europe between the invention of printing and the end of the sixteenth century. In my head, I think of it as like the ESTC for Europe—those of us who study primarily English books and book trade are incredibly lucky to have had the STC, Wing, and ESTC to help our research. It will be a great boon to have an equivalent, centralized catalog for European books of the period.

More to come!

Stay tuned for future posts featuring different angles on research, including tools for researching the book trade, provenance, and manuscripts. If you have suggestions for a topic, let me know in the comments or by dropping me an email.

Finally, don’t forget that there are help pages in Hamnet, detailed tips at the bottom of the search page, and a form to ask a librarian for assistance.

  1. Incidentally, if you need more assistance with learning basic Latin for your research, the National Archives: Reading Old Documents website including tutorials focused on Beginners’ Latin and Advanced Latin. (This isn’t on my current theme, but they also have tutorials for Paleography and Latin Paleography, information on the basics of Roman numerals, as well as a Currency Converter.) I can’t actually vouch for those tutorials personally, but their other tutorials are nicely done; if you’ve used them, perhaps you can leave comments on them below! []
  2. Stay tuned for a post on the relationship between Hamnet and the ESTC! []

Author: Sarah Werner

SARAH WERNER is Digital Media Strategist at the Folger Shakespeare Library and Editor of The Collation, and formerly the Library's Undergraduate Program Director. She blogs about books and reading, writes about modern performance and Renaissance drama, and is known in some corners of the web as @wynkenhimself.

One Comment

  1. If you can’t wait for more, get started browsing through these link collections from Owen Massey McKnight and from the RBMS Bibliographic Standards Committee.

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