Detective Work: The Dutch Fingerprint (Part I)

Previous Collation posts may convince even the most skeptical reader that bibliographic work often requires detective work. In some cases, this may involve bibliographers to take fingerprints. Fingerprints are regularly used by bibliographers to find out whether or not two copies are printed from the same setting of type. Roughly speaking, identical settings in two copies mean that the copies originate in the same print run and may be part of the same edition. Different settings may indicate different editions or different states. These are  issues that matter when we want to understand the production, distribution, and reception of printed books. That is the reason why they turn up in retrospective bibliographies such as the Short Title Catalogue Netherlands (STCN), the Short Title Catalogue Flanders (STCV), or the Universal Short Title Catalogue (USTC). 

screenshot of a USTC record with the fingerprint field highlighted

However enigmatic this series of symbols, letters and figures may look, this Collation post will make clear that you do not necessarily have to be a Hercule Poirot to decode fingerprints. In this post I will discuss the Dutch fingerprint, which was developed in the 1970s.1 There is also a second way of taking fingerprints, sometimes referred to as the “Scottish fingerprint” and mainly used in France, England, and Italy, but I will not discuss it now.

There is no need to get brushes and graphite ready; for bibliographic fingerprints, protractors featuring perpendicular lines will suffice. For all fingerprints, however, accuracy is a key element.

A specimen of the slightly flexible protractor I prefer to work with.

The fingerprint is an easy way to find out whether or not a copy of a letterpress book is printed from the same setting of type as another copy. Even when both copies can be consulted on the same table, the fingerprint can be useful, because it is sometimes very hard to tell whether compositors have been tinkering with type. But it certainly is of great value when copies have to be compared remotely.

The basic principle of the Dutch fingerprint is that the position of the signature at the bottom of the text block will differ when forms have been composed afresh, or when corrections were made during the printing process. The latter happens when the form in which the type is locked up was loosened, perhaps to fix a mistake or to otherwise make changes by removing some of the loosened type and inserting new characters, words, or sentences. In most cases, the type will shift slightly, whether because the lines have to be readjusted or because the loosening and tightening of the form moved the type, and that may affect the position of the signature in the direction line and/or the line just above it.

In brief, the Dutch fingerprint indicates the characters which are printed exactly above signatures. Let’s now analyze the different elements of this fingerprint by looking at a concrete example.

Title page of an emblem book, fol. [A]1r.

The Dutch fingerprint of this emblem book offered to Franciscus van Horenbeke, the tenth bishop of Ghent (Flanders), in 1677 reads as follows: 167702 – b1 B u : b2 L a. I will break this down for you part by part so that you can make sense of it.

167702 – b1 B u : b2 L a

The first part of the fingerprint is called the “year and format code.” It always consists of exactly six figures, in this example “167702.” The first group of four figures reflects the date as printed in the imprint on the title page, here “1677.” The last two figures is an indication of the format, here a folio, denoted as “02.” Broadsheets receive the code “01,” quartos “04,” octavos “08,” duodecimos “12,” sextodecimos “16″ and so on.

When there is no imprint on the title page, or the imprint on the title page does not contain a date, this results in four zeros: “0000.” Printing mistakes in the imprint are cited as given, not as corrected: a typo in the imprint of “1972″ instead of “1692″ is noted as “1972.” When the format is uncertain, this results in two zeros: “00.”

167702 – b1 B u : b2 L a

The second part of the fingerprint usually consists of two groups of information, separated by a colon.2 The combinations “b1″ and “b2″ are called the “indicators.” They indicate where the signatures are to be found in the book. Indicator “b1″ always refers to the first signature of the book proper that can be used to take a fingerprint. Indicator “b2″ refers to the last usable signature in the book proper.3 In this example, the first signature in the book is found on sig. B1r , because the first gathering, [A], bears no signatures.

First signature in the book proper reading “B” in the direction line of fol. B1r.

To take the fingerprint of this first position, a protractor with perpendicular lines comes into action. As shown on the next images, the protractor is placed so that the horizontal lines are parallel with the printed text. A perpendicular line is now moved to the left edge of the signature in question, in order to find out which characters are located in the space above the signature.

The horizontal lines on the protractor are parallel with the printed text and one of the vertical lines drops to the left edge of the signature “B.” The relevant lines are highlighted in red in this and the following images.

Now the protractor is moved so that a vertical line drops next to the right edge of the signature.

The horizontal lines on the protractor are parallel with the printed text and one of the vertical lines drops to the right edge of the signature “B.”

In this case, it turns out that the only text right above the signature reads “u.” This is the first position of the fingerprint and reads as “b1 B u,” which can be deciphered as: on the first position of the fingerprint in the book proper (“b1″), the signature reads “B” and the text above it reads “u.”

For the second position indicated as “b2,” we have to turn to the last page in the book with a signature, in this case fol. L1r . Here we find the signature “L” and the text exactly above it reads “a.”

The horizontal lines on the protractor are parallel with the printed text and the vertical lines drop to the right and left edges of the signature “L.”

Now you should be able to decode basic imprints. In my next Collation post I will discuss some more examples and go into detail about what to do when signatures can not be used.


About the Dutch fingerprint, see:

  • The STCN-fingerprint,” Koninklijke Bibliotheek.
  • P.C.A. Vriesema, ‘The STCN fingerprint’, in Studies in Bibliography, 39 (1986), 93–100.
  • P.C.A. Vriesema, ‘De STCN-vingerafdruk’, in Documentaal. Informatie- en communicatiebulletin voor neerlandici, 15 (1986), 55–61.

About the Scottish fingerprint, see:

  • Fingerprints: Regeln und Beispiele. Nach der englisch-französich-italienischen Ausgabe des Institut de Recherche et d’Histoire des Textes (CNRS) und der National Library of Scotland. Translated and with an introduction by Wolfgang Müller. Berlin: DBI, 1992.

The use of the Dutch fingerprint is also explained in the manuals of the STCN and STCV:

  • Handleiding voor de medewerkers aan de STCN. 2nd. rev. ed. ‘s-Gravenhage, Koninklijke Bibliotheek 1988.
  • S. van Impe, S. van Rossem & G. Proot, Handleiding voor de Short Title Catalogus Vlaanderen. 2nd rev. ed. Antwerpen 2003. This manual is available online (pdf).

Examples of the use of fingerprints:

  • B.J.P. Salemans, “Comparing Text Editions with the Aid of the Computer,” Computers and the Humanities 28 (1994-1995): 133-139.
  • K.-P. Möller, “Die Fingerabdruck-Methode: ein Kollations-Verfahren zur Unterscheidung von Drucken der frühen Neuzeit,” Wolfenbütteler Notizen zur Buchgeschichte 20 (1995): 37-62.
  1. See P.C.A. Vriesema, “The STCN fingerprint,” Studies in Bibliography 39 (1986): 93–100. []
  2. In a small number of cases this part is lacking, e.g. when it is impossible to take a fingerprint of signatures, when there is no letterpress material in the book proper, or when the rest of the book is missing. []
  3. There are also indicators for preliminary matter reading “a1″ (first signature position in the prelims) and “a2″ (last signature in the prelims), and indicators for end matter, reading “c1″ (first signature position in the end matter) and “c2″ (first signature position in the end matter). Positions “a1″ and “a2″ are only taken when preliminary matter is signed with different figures or alphabets than the book proper, and the same goes for positions “c1″ and “c2.” []

Author: Goran Proot

GORAN PROOT is Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Rare Books at the Folger Shakespeare Library. He is currently surveying layout and typography in early modern books.

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