The books on our shelf

Headers on blogs are sometimes just pretty pictures, just as sometimes books sitting on a shelf are just books sitting there. In this case, however, the books sitting on the shelf in our header image are not only pretty, but revealing!

Books in the vault, Deck C, Folger Shakespeare Library, 9/11/09

The picture that is the basis for The Collation‘s header was taken by Erica Abbey, one of the Folger’s photographers, in our Deck C rare materials vault on September 11, 2009. Deck C is where the bulk of the Library’s rare materials are kept; the STC collection is housed in its own vault on Deck B, and the art collection is kept in the Deck B Art Vault.1 Given a passing familiarity with the Folger and its categorization of books, it wouldn’t be hard to tell that this is a picture of books from the Deck C vault. The date 1736 at the bottom of the spine for Milton’s Paradiso Perduto is enough to signal that. (Click on the photo to above to get to a zoomable image in our Digital Image Collection.) But what are the works on this shelf and why are they featured in the blog’s header?

From left to right, starting with the 1736 edition of Paradise Lost, here is what you can see:

  1. Paradiso Perduto, Paolo Rolli’s translation of Milton’s Paradise Lost into Italian (London 1736)
  2. Giovanni Fiammelli’s work on the importance of fortification, Il principe difeso (Rome 1604)
  3. Farrago miscellaneorum, a collection of writings from the Catholic theologian Conrad Wimpina (Cologne 1531)
  4. A work from the German Protestant theologian, Christoph Herdesianus, Consensus orthodoxus Sacrae Scripturae et veteris ecclesiae (Zurich 1578)
  5. De regno Christi, Martin Bucer’s treatise for Protestant reform in England, published posthumously in Germany (Basel 1557)
  6. Francesco Angeloni’s history of Imperial Rome, La Historia Augusta (Rome 1641)
  7. Rudolf Hospinian’s De origine, progressu, ceremoniis et ritibus festorum dierum Iudaeorum, Graecorum, Romanorum & Turcarum libri tres (Zurich 1593) and his Festa Christianorum (Zurich 1593), here together as a single volume in a contemporary alum-tawed pigskin binding
  8. Bartolomeo Maranta’s Lucullianarum quaestionum libri quinque, five dialogues on the literary technique of Virgil (Basel 1564)
  9. An edition of Aulus Gellius’s second-century Latin essays and miscellany, Noctes Atticae (Strasbourg 1517), and Erasmus’s Adagia, a collection of Greek and Latin proverbs (Tübingen 1514), bound together into one volume
  10. Paulus Merula’s Cosmographiae generalis libri tres (Leiden 1605)
  11. A time-serving speech, spoken once in season. By a worthy member of Parliament. And now thought fit to be reprinted, to prevent the occasion of having it respoken. (London 1680)
  12. Histoire generale des églises évangeliques des vallées de Piémont ou Vaudoises, by the Waldensian pastor Jean Leger (Leiden 1669)2

Now that you know what’s on this shelf, you might wonder what it is that they have in common. It’s clearly not subject, or date, or place of publication. It’s not an alphabetical arrangement by author or title. The photo below, however, gives a glimpse into its organizing principle:

the books labelled with call numbers and accession numbers (see my update below, though, for where to put the hyphen!)

The books here are each labeled with either their call number (the white numbers) or their accession number (the yellow ones). And those numbers clearly ascend in order. In other words, these books are organized by the date of their acquisition by the Library. According to our records, these books were acquired by the Library in early 1960, were given accession numbers of 175979, 175980, 175981, etc., and were shelved in the order in which they were received. As they have received full cataloging, the accession numbers have turned into call numbers, with additional information about size: quarto (“q”), folio (“f”), or broadside/flat (“b” or “flat”). (This is a bit confusing since “folio” and “quarto” here do not refer to the book’s format but to its size; real library hounds might want to follow this note for more in-depth information on this!3 ) The catalog record for Fiamelli’s Il principe defeseo shows very clearly that it has an accession number of 175980 and a call number of 175– 980f and a folio size of 34 cm. Once the Farrago miscellaneorum is fully cataloged, it will become 175– 981f or 175– 981q. (I didn’t actually examine the book to determine its size, and the acquisition information I’m looking at doesn’t show that information, although it does show that the Library paid £26 on January 29, 1960 for the book.) One thing I love about this photograph is that it reminds me that the Library’s collections are living and breathing: they are not static, but shifting as they are used and adjusted.

And here’s one detail that shows exactly what I mean. See the Merula, the fat vellum-bound book labelled 175– 995q in the above photo? That book no longer sits next to these other books. When this photo was taken, in September 2009, it hadn’t yet been fully cataloged and was shelved by its accession number. But sometime in the last two years, the book was fully cataloged and, in the process, was determined to be quarto-sized. As such, it sits with the other quartos, and is no longer shelved next to its folio friends. Presumably when it was first shelved, someone eyeballed it and guessed that it was more than 30 cm and so placed it with the folios. As anyone who deals with open stacks can tell you, this happens not infrequently: if they’re not labeled on the spine as being a specific size, items that are not obviously tall or obviously short (or obviously flat!) can end up in the wrong place.

There’s a larger conversation to be had here about call numbers and shelving and the time it takes to catalog acquisitions. The fact is that it takes a long time to properly catalog an item, and for almost all libraries, acquisitions speed ahead faster than cataloging. Even after the pace of acquisitions might slow, the work of cataloging doesn’t lessen. The Folger has had some marvelous grants in recent years that have allowed the Library to properly catalog its entire STC collection, its manuscripts, a large fraction of the unbound art collection, and now the Shakespeare Collection. It’s a fact of life in libraries: there are hidden collections and uncataloged acquisitions and you should always talk to the curators and librarians in order to learn what you might be missing.

There’s another piece to this that I find interesting, and that’s the decision that libraries need to make about how to organize their holdings. In this instance, the Folger decided that it made the most sense to switch to using accession numbers to organize their shelves. That wasn’t, and isn’t, always the case. The STC collection is shelved separately, as I mentioned. The Shakespeare Collection is organized primarily by Library of Congress call numbers. Other books bear reminders of their physical location (call numbers that end in “Cage,” for example). There are some advantages to shelving by accession numbers: it’s easier to keep track of space needs, since, generally speaking, most books aren’t going to need to be reshelved once they’re cataloged. And I think it’s interesting to see how a library builds its collections, something that is easily visible when you can browse a catalog by accession numbers. There are downsides, too. You can’t browse by subject, or author. I suppose if it’s a collection that can only be browsed by catalog, rather than by walking through the stacks, a user can compensate. But how books are shelved can affect what use is made of them.

One final note: when I was choosing an image to use for the header of this blog, I was attracted to this photo for two reasons. The first was that this was an image with a lovely range of early modern bindings. As opposed to, say, our collection of Shakespeare quartos or first folios, these bindings don’t shout “nineteenth-century red goatskin and gilt tooling!” These are books bound in vellum and calf contemporaneous to their printing. Imagining books in their later bindings gives a false sense of their use and value. Shakespeare’s plays can look more important than Foxe’s Acts and Monuments when the former are all shiny and gilt and the latter are worn calf, but that doesn’t mean that that is how they were valued by early modern readers.

The other reason that I was drawn to this image was that it wasn’t of Shakespeare. The Folger Shakespeare Library is named as it is because Shakespeare is central to the collections. The Library holds the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare materials, including not only eighty-two First Folios, but over 200 quartos and 7000 editions of his works from the Restoration to the present. It was Shakespeare that was at the heart of Henry and Emily Folger’s collecting, but the Library’s collections include much more than Shakespeare’s works or even early modern English works. The picture in The Collation‘s header, which includes books printed from early 1500s to the mid-1700s covering topics ranging from literature to theology to parliamentary debates and printed across Europe, gives a small hint of what the Library has to offer. Shakespeare will always be central to the Folger, but it’s not all that we have going on at the Library. Take a look at the Library’s Collection Development Policy, which makes clear in wonderful detail exactly how much more there is to the collections.

An update: This is a tiny detail, but I hadn’t actually fully worked out the proper way to write out those dash call numbers before now. It’s number dash space number, like this: 175- 995q. There’s complicated reasoning behind that having to do with computers and wrapping text on printed cards, but the point is, it’s number dash space number. So go by the way it’s written in the body of this post and not as I’ve labeled the books in the photo!

  1. The STC collection is, as you might imagine, made up of books that are in Pollard and Redgrave’s A short-title catalogue of books printed in England, Scotland and Ireland, and of English books printed abroad 1475-1640. The fact that the Folger houses them separately goes some way towards indicating the remarkable influence of Edward Arber’s transcription of the Stationers’ Register (which only goes up to 1640) and the STC itself on the study of early modern British works. []
  2. A side note: if you are doing research on books in this period, especially non-Anglophone ones, you will find that the place names are often in Latin. A handy resource from the Bibliographic Standards Committee of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries will help you identify those locations in English: see the RBMS/BSC Latin Place Names File. []
  3. I’m not sure why the same words that are used to refer to format in hand-press era books became the words to indicate spine height in machine-press era books. When used in shelving in libraries, “quarto” means “30 cm or shorter and 23 cm or narrower,” “folio” means “more than 30 cm tall or more than 23 cm wide,” and “broadside” means “shelved flat, any size.” (Although earlier flat acquisitions were called broadsides, they are now identified as flats.) []

Author: Sarah Werner

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

4 Comments

  1. One of the things I like about shelving by accession number in closed stacks is that it seems more fair: staff with vault access don’t have an advantage over everyone else, since browsing the shelves won’t help. Everyone has to “browse” virtually, using access points in the record (which also seems more fair to the material: it doesn’t have to be pigeonholed into a single category for shelving purposes. Hypothetical example: is a book about the University of Oxford during the English Civil War more about the university, or more about the Civil War?)

    • I love that point! One of the boons of closed stacks can be that it eliminates all that weird context insistence. Browsing virtually means that many more books can be adjacent to a single item than would be physically possible.

  2. I was about to object to Erin’s comment, since browsing the shelves would make it so easy to identify, say, books with vellum bindings on which the title has been written — but, I see that your fabulous Folger catalogers even have a standard note for “ms. spine title”! (Of course, closed stacks only work this way when the catalog is so thorough.)

    This is an excellent reminder that the Folger has so, so much more than Shakespeare — of the books in this photo, two stand out to me, for different reasons: the Hospinian seems designed as a two-for-one deal by the bookshop (from the imprints, they were both published in the same year by the same person); even better is the volume in which two printed commonplace books (the Gellius and the Erasmus) have been bound together, presumably by the early owner, since they were published in different years in different places. And the catalog record says there are “early manuscript notes”! So I’ll be adding that to my list for my next visit to the Folger.

  3. Fabulous entry, Sarah! You even direct readers to something I’ve always considered a hidden cataloging tool: the RBMS/BSC Latin place names file!

    A couple of notes. First is that a great many libraries have moved to (or never switched from) shelving their closed collections in order of accession. The primary purpose of classification (ordering materials according to their content, as do the Dewey and Library of Congress classification systems) is to aid in browsing, which of course has no meaning for closed stacks. (Some places were a little too flippant in their nomenclature for my sensibilities; when I was a Beinecke cataloger, I agitated against the entrenched convention of calling this consecutive shelving system “idiot numbers.”)

    As for the confusing double use of bibliographic terms (folio, quarto, &c.) to indicate 1) within the bibliographic record its imposition, and 2) in the shelfmark its size, initial blame falls on the 19c publishers who co-opted those terms to indicate size alone. Too bad librarians followed suit. Something already done in off-site storage facilities, and may possibly be gradually adopted in on-site shelving, is finer grades of delineation based on size. The Folger is normal in designating three basic sizes: normal, large, and flat. But we could save a lot more shelving space if we had, say, five or six size categories. Not that I’m necessarily recommending this …

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