The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

V, u/v, and library transcription rules

You know the saying, “the great thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from?” You know Sarah’s post about the transcription practices used in The Collation, and Goran’s posts about V and U in titles and imprints of 17th-century Flemish books in the STCV? Welcome to the Anglo-American cataloging rules for transcription in early modern texts, which differ from both.

One of the frustrating things about traditional library cataloging rules is that they require converting uppercase and lowercase letters in titles to “sentence case.” 1 That’s simple with modern publications, where “V” becomes “v” and “U” becomes “u”, but what about books published in the era when the uppercase letterform “V” could be a “u” or “v” depending on its placement in the word, and “U” didn’t exist at all? Take this engraving from the late 16th century, for instance:

Depiction of the production of silk. In the foreground, seated to right, Emperor Justinian sits under a canopy and converses with monks; in the background, seen through a window, women look after silk worms and weave silk.
Jan van der Straet, (1523-1605). Ser, siue, Sericus vermis. Antwerp: Philippe Galle, ca. 1591. Folger Shakespeare Library ART Vol. f81 no.8.

The title appears on this engraving as “SER, SIVE SERICVS VERMIS” (in English, “SILK, OR THE SILK WORM”). Because “V” was the only uppercase letterform at the time for what can appear as “u” or “v” in lowercase, what do you do with the “V”s when converting the all-caps title to sentence case? 

Detail of title, Folger ART Vol. f81 no.8

Some people would say to keep the same shape, so big-V becomes little-v and you get “Ser, sive sericvs vermis.” That approach is delightfully easy, but has the unfortunate side effect of producing something historically impossible. As Sarah explained in her post, the position of the lowercase letter within the word determined whether the “u” or the “v” letterform was used. That means that unless there’s a typo, you’ll never find a phrase where the “v” shape appears both in the middle of lowercase words (“sive” and “sericvs”) and at the start of lowercase words (“vermis”).

You could also convert case according to modern use, where “v” is a consonant and “u” is a vowel, “Ser, sive sericus vermis.” Now you have something historically possible. Unfortunately, it’s only historically possible in more recent centuries. It’s still anachronistic for the time of the engraving. Moreover, if you have a mix of all-uppercase words and words with lowercase letters, you’ll go back to having something historically impossible unless you also modernize the lowercase letters. Sticking with this print as an example, you’d have to change “Iustnianus oua vermis accipit” to “Justinianus ova vermis accipit” even though the phrase is already in sentence case, and therefore shouldn’t be altered.

Alternatively, you could convert uppercase “V” to lowercase  following the internal practice of the document in hand, assuming that the document itself isn’t in all-caps. This is what Folger catalogers do, following the rules of Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (DCRM), a suite of manuals widely used for special collections cataloging in the Anglo-American world. 2 DCRM says, “If the rules for capitalization require converting I or V to lower case … follow the pattern of usage in the text to determine which letterform to use in the transcription.”

SER, SIVE SERICVS VERM"IS. Iustinianus oua vermis accipit. Serinda ab vrbe, fila qui net aurea.
Detail of title and caption from Folger ART Vol. f81 no.8

In the case of the SER, SIVE SERICVS VERMIS engraving, the two phrases below the title provide enough information to apply the DCRM instruction. The lowercase text uses “v” for vowels or consonants at the beginnings of words (in “vermis” and “vrbe”), and “u” for vowels or consonants in the middle (in “Iustnianus,” “oua,” “qui,” and “aurea”). That gives us “Ser, siue sericus vermis,” right? Almost. Rare materials cataloging rules also say to modernize punctuation, to consider “alternative titles” as titles, and to capitalize the first word of a title. “Sive” means “or,” therefore “Sericus vermis” is an alternative title to “Ser.” So, finally, we have: “Ser, siue, Sericus vermis.”

What happens when you apply rare materials cataloging rules to the publications Goran described at the end of his post on V and U in 17th-century Flemish book imprints, where one uses only the letterform “V” for uppercase “u” and “v” while the other uses both “U” and “V”?

Title pages of two editions of the Edict perpetvel (1663). Folger 222256.22 (fol. A1r); Ghent University Library Meul.003973 (fol. A1r).
Title pages of Folger 222256.22 (left) and Ghent University Library Meul.003973 (right).

If you don’t change the case of the letters, the book on the left has the title “EDICT PERPETVEL DV ROY NOSTRE SIRE TOVCHANT LES BIENS, DROICTZ, OV Deniers cy devant sequestrez, namptiz, depositez, ou demeurez es mains de ses Officiers….” Looking at the rest of the text  in lowercase letters, it’s clear that this publication uses the letterform “u” for vowels and the letterform “v” for consonants. Therefore, when converted to sentence case using its internal rules, the title would read “Edict perpetuel du Roy nostre sire touchant les biens, droictz, ou deniers cy devant sequestrez, namptiz, depositez, ou demeurez es mains de ses officiers….” 3

While this is an accurate rendering of that title as it would have appeared in sentence case in 1663, it means that you can’t use a library catalog to do the kind of statistical analysis of “V” versus “U” that Goran did in his two most recent posts. When converted to sentence case using internal evidence, as library cataloging rules dictate, the only recorded difference between the two titles would be the presence or absence of the hyphen in “cy-devant.”

How can we make transcription rules easier to find? Later this spring, the Folger will be launching Folgerpedia, an online reference resource for all things Folger-related. One of the articles will definitely cover the different transcription conventions in use in library resources like The Collation, finding aids for manuscripts, and the online catalog. In the meantime, here’s a PDF of the DCRM appendix on transcription rules for early letterforms and symbols for you to download and keep handy. 4

  1. An exception is made for titles that contain chronograms, where the uppercase letters add up to a date when counted as individual roman numerals. For instance, “DoMI et patrIae VIVIt herVs, forIs et eXterIs VIXIt CLarVs” is the title inscribed around a portrait published in 1703, and 500(D) + 1000(M) + 1(I) + 1(I) + 5(V) + 1(I) + 5(V) + 1(I) + 5(V) + 1(I) + 10(X) + 1(I) + 5(V) + 1(I) + 10(X) + 1(I) + 100(C) + 50(L) + 5(V) = 1703.
  2. Although produced by the Rare Books and Manuscripts section of the Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association, in collaboration with the Library of Congress, the manuals were created in consultation with international librarians, and derive from rules created jointly by the American Library Association (ALA), the Canadian Library Association (CLA), and the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP, the British equivalent of ALA and CLA).
  3. “Roy” keeps an initial capital because the rules also say “Capitalize a title of royalty or nobility.”
  4. The appendix comes from Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Graphics), or DCRM(G), but except for the examples being from pictures, it is identical to the rules for books, serials, and other materials. The entire text of DCRM(G) can be downloaded for free at

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