Steady sellers

Recently, Jan van de Kamp, a scholar from the Netherlands, contacted me with the question of whether I knew a method to extract all religious steady sellers from the Short Title Catalogue, Netherlands (STCN). He would like to use that information to prepare a contribution to the Brill Companion to Dutch Protestant Piety, 1480–1820, in which Jan will discuss the production of edifying literature published in the Netherlands in the period 1570–1820.1

When I hear the term “steady seller,” I immediately think of the work De imitatione Christi by late 14th-century Augustinian monk Thomas à Kempis, which by all means was the steady seller of all times. De imitatione Christi has been printed over and again, and the work is still available today—including as an edition for smart phones.2 And indeed, there are over 140 editions of this work listed in the STCN, the online bibliography of pre-1801 hand-press books published in Dutch or in the Netherlands. Of that list, 79 editions were produced in the north (the present-day Netherlands) and 57 in the south (present-day Flanders). In addition, six editions bear a so-called fictitious Flemish address, but were in fact produced in the protestant north.3 This is exactly the kind of work Jan is interested in: religious or devotional books with a long publishing history.

But how to produce such a list in an online bibliography? After all, the aim is not to look for authors and titles one already knows, but to include those that do not turn up in the usual lists and are forgotten. Unfortunately, most online catalogs and bibliographies do not include a separate index for edition statements. Brave scholars among us will use the browse function to look for authors and work through the entire author index of the database, beginning with “a” and ending with “z.” For each entry in the index is indicated how many titles refer to the listed author, but how this index is generated often remains an enigma. Three titles, for instance, are linked to the entry “a, a n” (the initials of Antoine Nicolas Agron). But clicking on all three titles does not explain why his initials appear in this index: all three title pages mention his entire name.

Screen shot from the STCN showing the author index entered with the term “a”

Screen shot from the STCN showing the author index entered with the term “a”

Apart from this difficulty, browsing the entire author index seems to be an impossible task. After twenty screens, one reaches names beginning with “aalst” where we find, among others, the name of Gerardus van der Aalst (1678–1759), who is mentioned in seven titles. At this point, one regrets the fact that online databases do not come with printed indexes. Browsing the title index does not help, either. The STCN claims to describe about 200,000 titles, much more than we are looking for in this particular case.

As the following screen shot shows, titles are sometimes followed by edition statements, which are useful when one tries to compose a list of steady sellers. Take, for instance, the following list:

Screen shot from the STCN showing publications by Adriaen Poirters SJ (1605-1674)

Screen shot from the STCN showing publications by Adriaen Poirters SJ (1605-1674)

Interestingly, Het duyfken in de steen-rotse [“The Pigeon in the Rock”] appears four times on this screen, three times as the “fifth enlarged impression”—a clear indication that we are dealing with a popular work. The fingerprint of all three editions is different, which means that the type setting for each of them is different, which in turn suggests that the book was very quickly sold out and immediately reset. The Folger has also a copy of this fascinating work, notably the “fifth enlarged impression” printed by Michiel Cnobbaert in Antwerp.

Typographical and engraved title pages of Het duyfken in de steen-rotse, Antwerpen: Michiel Cnobbaert (1665) (Folger 211897, fols. a1r and a2r; STCV 3170030

Typographical and engraved title pages of Het duyfken in de steen-rotse (Antwerpen: Michiel Cnobbaert,1665) (Folger 211897, fols. a1r and a2r; STCV 3170030)

Edition statements seem to be a valid way to retrieve steady sellers, but unfortunately, the STCN does not allow for browsing or searching edition statements. As the following screen shot shows, the content of the field containing editions statements are not indexed by the system.

Screen shot from the STCN showing the indexes for a specific title

Screen shot from the STCN showing the indexes for a specific title

Very few users know that one can easily access the list with all indexes, as well as the entire, tagged structure of any STCN title. One can find it by hovering with the cursor just below the little book icon on the left hand side of the description. When the cursor changes from an arrow to a little hand (in bibliographic terminology, a manicule), one can click and obtain the technical information of the record.

Screen shot from the STCN: when one clicks just below the little book icon on the left, one obtains the tagged data logged for this title

Screen shot from the STCN: when one clicks just below the little book icon on the left, one obtains the tagged data logged for this title

Although edition statements are included in the bibliographic records, they are not indexed. But there is another way to extract them from the descriptions. Bibliographic records are highly structured, and in the background, each piece of information is tagged with a four digit number. This is also the case for the STCN. In August 2013 I asked the project management for a download of the entire database as a tagged, plain text document, which looks like this:

Section from the STCN download as a tagged text document. Each field is preceded with a four digit number.

Section from the STCN download as a tagged text document. Each field is preceded with a four digit number.

From here, it is only the matter of extracting from this file all fields tagged with the number “4020.” This sounds easier than it is: the entire text file is over 460 MB and counts more than 11,000,000 lines of information. I divided the original file into 20 parts, which I imported in a FileMakerPro database, which seemed to have trouble digesting the original single file. With the help of scripts, I extracted the tags and linked each line to the right record number. As a result of this operation, I found 18,378 out of a total 187,854 records with an edition statement, or 9.7% of all descriptions. In 10,569 cases, a number is mentioned in the edition statement, for example “3rd corrected edition.” As stated before, this dataset also includes about 500 Dutch-language editions originating from the Southern Netherlands.

Graph with the distribution of different edition statements in the STCN; to see these numbers expressed as numbers, click here.

Graph with the distribution of different edition statements in the STCN; to see these numbers expressed as numbers, click here.

The graph illustrates the distribution of the editions statements that mention a number. 47% of all statements refer to a second (corrected, enlarged, etc.) edition. Another 20% are third editions, and 10% are fourth editions. Then it gets thinner. Only 14 editions refer to the 20th edition, and in total, 84 editions mention a number between 21 and 97! If you are curious to see what those titles are, you can download this pdf with deep links in the STCN to the descriptions.

But this is only the beginning. Obviously, there are books claiming to be the 97th edition—in fact, the STCN contains four of them—but the 96th, 95th, and so on, editions are not recorded. Although I did not survey this, I have my doubts about the accuracy of these statements. More interesting to me is the question why a title page would mention a number as 97, and not, for instance, 87. Secondly, there are title pages referring to “corrected impression” or “enlarged edition.” Of course, this implies at least one former edition. Is there a distinction between books referring to an edition number, and those that don’t? And then there are the books which aren’t first editions, but which do not refer to the fact that they are the second, third, or later, edition. Probably, those are the real steady sellers: those which do not need the branding.

Almost 4,000 titles with edition statements have the descriptor “Theology,” including Bibles and Bible interpretation, Christian doctrine, church history, Judaism, other religions, practical theology, and theology in general. Those categories make up only about 11% of all the descriptions in the STCN. 38 titles have the descriptor “Catechisms,” and only 5 have the descriptor “Prayer books.”4 Interestingly, not a single liturgical book bears an edition statement.

As I hope this shows, it might not be easy to explore edition statements, but there are a lot of questions we could ask and maybe answers to discover!

  1. For more information about this project, please contact Jan van de Kamp. []
  2. In 2011, a collective bibliography of the editions and copies of De imitatione Christi in Paris libraries was published under the direction of Martine Delaveau and Yann Sordet: Édition et diffusion de l’Imitation de Jésus-Christ (1470-1800), Paris 2011. The next year, they received the Bibliography Prize 2012 of the Syndicat National de la Librairie Ancienne et Moderne (SLAM) for this work. []
  3. The majority of the Flemish titles in the STCN were derived from the STCV. At present—28 April 2014—the STCN contains 8,156 editions labelled with the country code for Belgium, “be.” []
  4. Some titles combine two or more of these categories, so one cannot simply add up the numbers mentioned here. []

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.

3 Comments

  1. Pingback: Carnivalesque 103 | Wynken de Worde

  2. As for: “… the STCN does not allow for browsing or searching edition statements” – I was going to suggest why you did not get the original database and use regular expressions to get to where you want only to see at the bottom you eventually did more or less just that. Your later statement “Bibliographic records are highly structured, …” This “brings some tears to my eyes” as whenever I think of the gigantic digitization effort Google has undertaken with Google books – only what they have not understood is how bibliographical work is undertaken. Could Google not have hired at least one librarian to coordinate this? I have a hard time making heads and tales of Google’s “bibliographical” garbage.

    • Dear Mr McCurragh,

      Thank you very much for your comment.

      As far as I know, Google works closely together with librarians when digitizing books — at least, that is the case at Ghent University Library. However, that does not imply that they listen to them: Google’s turnover is so immense, that they really can not pay attention to the finer points of bibliography. Ultimately, I believe that Google is not really interested in bibliography: they are on the stock market, and that explains a lot.

      At this point, Google maintains a “quick and dirty” approach. In their philosophy, it is up to the user to figure out things, which is, on a screen, particularly difficult, not only because you see single pages in stead of spreads or openings, you never know whether a leave is missing or an image, and rulers are not included.

      Because of the “managerial turn” in libraries, including academic libraries, a lot of expertise was lost. There are signs that this may come back, but in the meantime damage is done. Digitization has been a fetish for which much has been sacrificed. In my opinion, the care for our (handpress) heritage and the creation of digital surrogates should go hand in hand and reinforce each other.

      Best wishes,

      Goran

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