The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

When is an inscription not an inscription?

Two folks identified the key elements of this month’s crocodile mystery in their comments: Misha Teramura correctly noted that the inscription in the middle of the page—“pp. 184-190 refer to the progress of religion westward toward America”—refers to George Herbert’s final poem from The Temple, “The Church Militant.” And David Shaw noted that the other inscriptions—“8652” on the top left and “A176” on the bottom right—look to be an accession number and a shelf mark.

But let’s back up for one moment to understand why I find these marks interesting. The book in question is a first edition of George Herbert’s The Temple (STC 13183). It’s an interesting work, and a popular one in the 17th century. And as you can see from the notations on the front pastedown and the recto of the first free flyleaf, it’s a work that was prized by later collectors.

The pastedown and first free flyleaf of George Herbert's The Temple (STC 13183)
the pastedown and first free flyleaf

This particular copy was owned by Sir Leicester Harmsworth before it came into the Folger Shakespeare Library collection, and its value is shown in part by the blue goatskin binding signed on the bottom turn-in by Riviere and Son. Its value is more obviously indicated by the inscription on the pastedown, “a copy sold in the Terry sale in Dec 1935 for $3600.”

There is another set of inscriptions opposite the title page and more marks on the rear pastedown:

penciled inscription facing the title page
penciled inscription facing the title page
inscription on the rear pastedown
inscription on the rear pastedown

To anyone interested in provenance or involved in the book trade, these markings will seem familiar: they’re the traces of booksellers and catalogers through whose hands the book passed. I suspect in this case that these inscriptions were written by a couple of different folks in the early twentieth century, given what we know about the dates supplied and the variations in handwriting.

Once you start looking, these traces of booksellers and librarians aren’t hard to find.

inside cover and front flyleaf of The ceremonies for the healing of them that be diseased with the kings evil, used in the time of King Henry VII. (1686)
inside cover and front flyleaf of The ceremonies for the healing of them that be diseased with the kings evil, used in the time of King Henry VII (158- 632q)
front pastedown and flyleaf of Sphæra civitatis, authore Magistro Iohanne Caso Oxoniensi, olim Collegii Diui Iohannis Præcursoris socio (STC 4761)
front pastedown and flyleaf of Sphæra civitatis, authore Magistro Iohanne Caso Oxoniensi, olim Collegii Diui Iohannis Præcursoris socio (STC 4761)
recto of front flyleaf of Deuotions vpon emergent occasions (STC 7034 Copy 1)
recto of front flyleaf of Deuotions vpon emergent occasions (STC 7034 Copy 1)

What catches my attention about all of these examples is the ways in which the inscriptions are visible on the item itself, but not the records of them in the catalog. While the catalog records for each of these include descriptions of various markings, they do not include mention of the penciled notes left by the booksellers and catalogers.

The record for our mystery item, for instance, describes the binding signed Riviere & Son and that it was owned by Harmsworth, but not the inscriptions. The record for The ceremonies for the healing of them that be diseased with the kings evil describes it as follows: “MS. contemporary price. Sewn into marbled paper wrappers. Provenance: inscription on t.p.: “Ri. [Richard] Newdigate” [Arbury Library ?].” The record for Sphæra civitatis notes the lovely manuscript waste paper and the provenance inscription of “Henr: White, Lichfield, 1807” but does not quote the other provenance information on the flyleaf. The record for Donne’s Devotions transcribes the “Raphe Wilbraham his Booke by gift from his deare Brothr in law Mr. Richard Minshull” and “Roger Wilbraham” as provenance information, but only conveys the information about being part of the Britwell Court sale in 1920, rather than transcribing it.

verso front fly leaf and title page of The two bookes of Sr Francis Bacon, of the proficience and advancement of learning, divine and humane
verso front fly leaf and title page of The two bookes of Sr Francis Bacon, of the proficience and advancement of learning, divine and humane (STC 1166 copy 6)

I hadn’t really paid much attention to this category of marks not being cataloged until I wanted to find out more about the notation shown in the image above, a book that I discussed last month. I am sure that I have seen that “Shakespeare mentioned” type of inscription in Folger books before, and I have distinct recollections of my students noticing it in some of their books. I’d love to find out who was writing these inscriptions. Was it a bookseller flagging items for the attention of Mr and Mrs Folger? An early librarian at the Library noting why it was in the collection? Even though I’ve been looking for more instances of it since discussing it last month, I can’t find any other examples. I’ve looked through my notes and through old student papers, but I’m not turning it up. And since it’s not recorded in any of the records in Hamnet, I’m at a temporary loss. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to make more progress on this, or at least any progress other than serendipitous happenstance.

I’m not necessarily recommending that catalogers note all such inscriptions in their records: how often do researchers want to have access to this sort of information when looking through a catalog? On the other hand, at what point does an inscription switch from being unremarked upon to being something from the historical past worth signalling? When is an inscription not an inscription worth noting and when does it become part of the record?

6 Comments


  • Excellent questions! One of the hardest things about cataloging (in my opinion) is the mental anguish of having to leave some things out of the description. If you catalog ten books a month with as much detail as possible rather than fifty books a month with a reasonable amount of detail, you’ll be left with forty books that scholars can’t get access to at all.

    We’re gradually putting cataloging policy on Folgerpedia so that researchers will have an idea what they can expect in newly-created records (and in older ones that have been enhanced). In a nutshell, though, we start with the Folger’s mission “to advance understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare’s writings and the culture of the early modern world.” It would be great if we had the resources to note all booksellers’ notations, but we don’t, so catalogers only routinely note the presence of early modern prices (“the culture of the early modern world”). Shakespeare is the exception: an “understanding…of Shakespeare’s writings” includes understanding the market for those writings right up to the present day.

    • Thanks, Erin. I really wasn’t advocating that these marks have to be included in cataloging—it would slow the process down to a crawl, which wouldn’t serve anyone’s needs. I am interested in the ways it reveals the scholarly and library worlds’ understanding of what marks are significant and for what reasons. And it’s not just catalogers who skip over these marks. My sense, from years of teaching students to examine books closely for signs of user interaction, is that even with those explicit instructions to LOOK AT books, these types of marks often don’t register. What does that tell us about how these books are used today and what uses libraries enable? (I do think posting a cataloging policy on Folgerpedia is a great idea!)

  • Good questions. I have actually had some discussions on this topic recently in regards to whether or not to transcribe such marks/notations by later booksellers, librarians, etc. for the manuscripts we are transcribing and encoding for EMMO. We are experimenting with using a specific tag for added notes like these to differentiate them from the original text of the manuscripts but still include them in case someone is interested in these notations at some point in the future.

  • Another reason it’s easy to skip over dealers’ pencil annotations is that they can be, quite literally, cryptic. If you see “bought of Mr. Waller 24 Nov. for 12/” it registers as memorable information (http://hamnet.folger.edu/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?BBID=133271 in case you were wondering). But a few random letters? Or a pattern of lines and dots? The codes that canny antiquarian booksellers use to disguise when they purchased something and for how much register as white noise.

  • I am for a bibliographic field called Provenance.
    Put everything you find about the owners of this copy of the work of author/title/subjects/publishers/places X in that field.

    No thinking (the cataloguer’s worst vice – disguised as virtue). Just jot the stuff down there 😉


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