Does a4 A-O8 P10 make perfect sense to you? If so, please read on anyway. This isn’t a post on how to decode a collational formula. It’s a post about what to expect (and what not to expect) in the “physical description” portion of a library catalog record for a book.1 In other words, the part that looks like this in a Hamnet record, taking the record for the 1513 Venetian edition of Macrobius’s Commentaries on the Dream of Scipio as an example:2
International Standard Bibliographic Description (yes, there is an international standard) calls this part of the record the Material Description Area.3 In Anglo-American library cataloging, it’s called the Physical Description Area.4 At the Folger, as at the Library of Congress, our catalogs label it simply “Description.” It has three basic parts (“subfields” in library-speak) separated by a punctuation mark with a space on ether side.
The first part of the physical description, , CXXII leaves in this example, is the “statement of extent.” The statement of extent must account for every leaf of the book as issued by the publisher (if one or more of a particular library’s copies are missing leaves, that gets noted in the portion of the record devoted to copy-specific information). The statement of extent is sometimes referred to as the “pagination statement” because it doesn’t give the number of pages as such, it gives the numbering of the pages in a way that allows the extent to be calculated. Or, as in this case, it presents the information in terms of leaves rather than pages (called “foliation,” in contrast to “pagination”) because that’s how the book presents itself: sequential Roman numerals on the recto of each leaf, and no numbering on the verso, as you can see in this photo of the final opening.
We know from the catalog record that there are four unnumbered leaves before the numbering begins because the statement of extent starts —the square brackets indicate information that has not been transcribed from the source, but is known to be accurate. We also know there are 122 numbered leaves, and that they are numbered in Roman numerals, because the pagination statement ends CXXII (the roman numeral for 122, printed at the upper right of the last leaf, shown in the picture). Note that the statement only gives the final number of the sequence, not the actual numbers appearing on each leaf: unless otherwise stated, it’s assumed that counting back from the end of the sequence will get you to “one”.
But what happens in the statement of extent if the numbering in the book is wrong? Answer: nothing, unless it affects the final numbers. Because the statement is only a statement of extent, mis-numbering that does not change the totals is out-of-scope. In our Macrobius example, the leaf that should have been numbered LXI wasn’t (and happens to have been corrected by an early owner) but no mention is made in the statement of extent because there are still 122 leaves in the sequence, and the last number is printed correctly as CXXII.5 This isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of books where mis-numbering doesn’t self correct, or doesn’t self-correct within a reasonable number of pages, but that’s a story for another day.
The second part of the physical description of a book (ill. in our example) is known as the “illustration statement.” This is where the cataloger indicates whether the book contains illustrations, and sometimes provides additional information about those illustrations. If the book does have illustrations, their presence is indicated by the abbreviation ill., as was done in this record. If a book is unillustrated, the physical description jumps straight from the statement of extent to the statement of size and format.
The statement of size and format typically forms the last part of the physical description of an early modern book, as with the 31 cm (fol.) in our Macrobius example. The first portion indicates size by giving the height of the book (including binding, if present) rounded up to the nearest whole centimeter.6 Library catalogs only give the width of the book if it’s unusually wide or unusually skinny. The abbreviation in parentheses indicates the bibliographic format of the book: folio, in this case, meaning that the book is made up of sheets of paper folded in half once.
These three statements—of extent, of illustration, and of size and format—form a complete physical description in a library catalog.
What about the a4 A-O8 P10 part mentioned at the start of this post? Shouldn’t the collation be part of the physical description of a book? Check back Thursday for a follow-up post. [Update: follow-up now posted]
- Huge thanks go out to Deborah J. Leslie, Senior Cataloger at the Folger and Rare Book Cataloging instructor at Rare Book School, for her corrections and improvements to the draft version of this post.
- See the entire record used in this example.
- ISBD : International Standard Bibliographic Description. Consolidated edition. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter Saur, 2011, pp. 157-184.
- Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Books). Washington, DC: Cataloging Distribution Service, Library of Congress, 2007, pp. 101-118.
- The mis-numbering in the Macrobius example could be described in the “notes” section of the catalog record, if considered important. It just doesn’t go in the statement of extent.
- Books less than 10 cm high, however, get measured instead in millimeters.