The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

So how do you find symbols in signature marks?


In my last post, I showed some examples of books that use symbols in signature marks. But how did I find these books and how might you find more examples? It’s one thing to search for books printed in the year 1542, since “publication year” is a standard search box and “1542” is written in standard typography. But you can’t really type “¶” into a search box and get useful results. (Okay, you might be able to type “¶” into your search box but you’ll get something like what Hamnet spits out: “The system could not interpret your search statement.”)

I got started on this path I saw this tweet from the digitization folks at University of Oklahoma: 

Although I had my hunch as to what the answer to OU’s question, I had to look up the book’s ESTC record to see how this signature mark was indicated. There in one of the general notes is this:

Signatures: [fist]⁴ *⁴ a-d⁴ A-X⁴ Aa-Yy⁶ AA-YY⁶ AAa-FFf⁶ GGg-YYy⁴ AAA-EEE⁴.

That gives us a way for finding other examples of books that use fists to indicate gatherings. 1 Because I wanted to look at these books, not simply know that they exist, my first instinct was to search in Hamnet. But I knew immediately one of the problems that would crop up. Searching for “fist” in record notes would bring up any instance of “fist” in the Folger’s detailed copy-specific descriptions, including notes like this: “Manuscript finding note on leaf f1r, fist in red ink on leaf b2r.”

Luckily, I knew that the ESTC allowed you to search by library holding and I knew that the ESTC’s note field included collation formulas but not copy-specific notes. So I did an advanced search in the ESTC records that looked for “fist” in the “notes” field and “Folger” in “library name” and got 15 results. Not all of those 15 results were what I was looking for, of course—one was for a book with the note “This edition has woodcut of a fist holding a dagger on the recto of title page and portrait on the verso; another edition has woodcut portrait on title page.” But this method gave me a way to quickly find examples of books held at the Folger that used fists in signature marks.

My plan had two shortcomings, however. First, it only allowed me to search through books that fell within ESTC parameters: those printed in English or in English-speaking countries before 1801. 2 What about books printed on the Continent? I was sure, based on my devotion to Sayce’s work, that there would be plenty of interesting examples outside of the British book industry. But while the Folger has a large collection of Continental books, I still wasn’t sure how to effectively search them for collation statements.

The second shortcoming was that while I was aware of the standard cataloging term referring to fists, I was less sure of the vocabulary used to describe other symbols that appear in signature marks. It was clear to me from looking at the statement for Jewel’s Works (one of the books I discussed in my last post) that what I would describe as pilcrows are identified as “[par.]”, as seen in its record: “[par.]-2[par.]⁶ *a-*i⁶ A-3G⁶ 3H⁸; ²[par.]-2[par.]⁶ 3[par.]⁸ A-2R⁶, [fist]A-[fist]Z⁶ [fist]2A⁸.” I might have figured that out, but I don’t think it would have occurred to me to search for the triangle of asterisks I saw in Calvin’s sermons the way that they appear in the record: “[fist]⁴ 3*² A-G⁸ H⁴.” (Nor, frankly, would it have occurred to me, on seeing that statement to imagine three asterisks in a triangle rather than in a straight line.) 3

Clearly this is where we need some help from our friendly neighborhood Head of Collection Information Services!


Although there isn’t a controlled vocabulary for the symbols used in signature marks, Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Books) has a list of seven examples, and the introductory wording strongly implies that these are the “standard” terms that should be used:

7B9.2. Unavailable characters. … If the gatherings are signed with… unavailable characters, substitute a descriptive term or an abbreviation for that term if a standard one exists.

[dagger] (Comment: Gathering is signed with †)

[double dagger] (Comment: Gathering is signed with ‡)

[fist] (Comment: Gathering is signed with ☞)

[fleuron] (Comment: Gathering is signed with ❧)

[maltese cross] (Comment: Gathering is signed with ✠)

[par.] (Comment: Gathering is signed with ¶)

[sec.] (Comment: Gathering is signed with §)

Seven examples is an unusually large number for a DCRM rule, but it still doesn’t go far enough. Those three asterisks forming a triangle? Rare materials catalogers disagree. It has come up twice on DCRM-L, the “DCRM Users’ Group” list, that I know of: in October 2011 and March 2014. Both times, the discussion thread went something like this:

  • Asterism” is the correct typographical term, so we should use it.
  • Yes, but almost every catalog user will be baffled by the term “asterism” so we shouldn’t use it.
  • Yes, but “asterism” is in the dictionary, so users who don’t know can jolly well look it up.
  • Yes, but “asterism” has more than one dictionary meaning, so how are they supposed to know?
  • Why privilege “asterism” anyway? “Pilcrow” is the correct typographical terms for “¶” but we write “[par.]” not “[pilcrow]” in catalog records.

If I had to place a bet, I’d say that “[par.]” and “[sec.]” will be replaced by “[pilcrow]” and “[section sign]” in DCRM cataloging before too long. Avoiding abbreviations is an important new principle,  and the ubiquity of Unicode terminology and Wikipedia mean asterism, pilcrow, and section sign are perfectly reasonable terms to use in English. (By the way, if you want the inside scoop on rare materials descriptive cataloging rules, you can now get DCRM(Books), DCRM(Graphics), and DCRM(Serials) as free PDFs. The manuals for manuscripts, maps, and music will join them once they’re completed.)

As for how to find books with symbols in signature marks, congratulations on figuring out the ESTC  work-around, though as you said, that doesn’t get you to any Continental publications at the Folger, unless they were English-language texts. The good news is that you didn’t miss anything obvious. There really is no satisfying way to search Hamnet for examples you can get your hands on. Here’s the not-so-satisfying way I’d go about it.

First, assess the clues:

  • Not all rare book catalog records include signatures (it’s not a required note, just a note to include “if considered important”) but when they do, the rules say “preface this note with the word ‘Signatures’ and a colon.”
  • The term “fist” will always be in the singular in a signature note, but usually in the plural in copy-specific notes. 4
  • Hamnet searches (like pretty much all online library catalog searches) ignore case and punctuation, so the square brackets around “fist” and the capital “S” and colon in “Signatures:” won’t be any help.

Second, build the search:

  1. On the “Advanced search” tab, click the “Set limits” link at lower right and limit the location to “Deck B-STC Vault” and “Deck C-Vault” (there are probably examples in “Deck B-Art Vault” too, but there are too many pictures with descriptive notes like “he stands with raised fist” to make that worthwhile).
  2. Do an “all of these” search for “Signature” and “fist” in “All Notes”

You’ll get a few false hits, but not so many that you can’t browse the results.

What your ESTC search also revealed is a gap in the Hamnet searches we provide. You can search “All Notes” and you can search just the sub-set of those that are “Folger Copy Notes” but you can’t do the inverse: there’s no way to search only the general notes. At least, there’s no way right now to search only the general notes. Collation readers, is it worth adding that search? Or is the drop-down “Search in” list on the Advanced search tab already way too long and confusing? 5

  1. See the comments on my last post for a conversation about using “fist” as opposed to “manicule” in this context.
  2. That’s a rough approximation of what’s included in the ESTC; full details can be found here.
  3. Actually, after another reading of Sayce, I was able to work out a vocabulary for some of these symbols, including an asterism.
  4. A search in “Folger Copy Notes” for “fists” [not] “fist” brings up 381 entries; a search for “fist” [not] “fists” brings up 28 entries.
  5. Note that although we can add just about any search imaginable, and name it anything we want, we can’t change the order of the list. It automatically sorts by popularity, so ISBN comes first thanks to automated searching that links on ISBN.


  • As well as the ¶ paragraph mark, early French printers regularly use a C-shaped paragraph mark. It is shown among “Other symbols” in Richard Sayce’s article in The Library (p. 15).
    Is this also called a pilcrow? Should the two forms be distringuished?
    I record them as P-pilcrow and C-pilcrow but obviously this is totally non-standard.

    • Hi, David,
      I wondered the same thing, for I was taught to call that “C” mark the “capitulum.” But I was also taught, evidently wrongly, to call the pilcrow mark a “paraph.”

      Checking the OED, s.v. pilcrow, yields:

      1993 N.Y. Rev. Bks. 4 Nov. 17/3 The upright letter C, for capitulum, developed into the popular medieval paragraph symbol, called at times a pilcrow or a paraph.

      And checking OED s.v. paraph: a paragraph mark, or the flourish after a signature used to prevent forgery. French etymology, as we’d expect. More interesting is that it was formerly used as a verb. So I’m going to try to paraph more carefully!

      I like your non-standard distinction, by the way, and shall adopt it.

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