The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Knowing your Adams from your Adams: decoding library catalog citations

Picture, if you will, a 16th-century Continental edition of Ovid, an 18th-century illustrated history of London, and a 19th-century book about the American west. Now picture which one of the three might be “in Adams.” Which one did you pick? Years ago, when I was doing dissertation research at the British Library Map Library, everyone in my circle knew that “Adams” referred to the standard bibliography of London topographical books published between 1604 and 1851. It was disorienting to discover later that people working with Continental 16th-century publications had their own “Adams,” as did people working with Americana.

In other words, it’s trick question: all three could be “in Adams,” and as long as you’re talking with other specialists, everyone would know which Adams you mean by context. Traditionally, library catalogs assume that everyone is a specialist, and that a description needs to fit on a 3 x 5 inch card. That’s how we ended up with online catalog citations like these ones: 

Screen-shot of one-word citations
Example of traditional standard citations in Hamnet.

Instead of using the Chicago Manual of Style or the MLA Style Manual, special collections catalogers use Standard Citation Forms for Rare Book Cataloging, first published in 1982 and based largely on long-time Library of Congress practice. 1 “Adams,” everyone was supposed to know, meant The Catalogue of Books Printed on the Continent of Europe, 1501-1600, in Cambridge Libraries, compiled by H.M. Adams. And “my” Adams, the bibliography of London topographical views, wasn’t even in Standard Citation Forms because “London” is too small an area: bibliographies “of or about individuals, printers, publishers, or jurisdictions below the national level” didn’t make the cut. (Which was, in fact, good news: because it didn’t have an official abbreviated form, it could be entered more fully, as “Adams, B. London illustrated, 1604-1851”)

Until now, users wishing to decode cryptic library catalog citations had to get their hands on a paper copy of Standard Citation Forms (long out of print) or get online access to Cataloger’s Desktop (a subscription resource that includes an electronic version of the 1996 edition, with updates). But things changed this month! The third edition of Standard Citation Forms is freely available online at (the website of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association):

Screenshot of Standard Citation Forms for Rare Materials Cataloging
Screenshot of Standard Citation Forms for Rare Materials Cataloging

See the search box labeled “Previous citation form”? Single-surname citations are gone! Instead of “Adams” catalogers will now be typing in “Adams, H.M. Catalogue of books printed on the continent of Europe, 1501-1600, in Cambridge libraries.” Instead of “George” catalogers will now be typing in “Catalogue of prints and drawings in the British Museum.”

The new web resource does have its quirks. It’s built and maintained by volunteers with no budget for fancy database software. For example, if you type “STC (2nd ed.)” into “Previous Citation Form” you immediately get to “Pollard, A.W. Short-title catalogue of books printed in England, Scotland, & Ireland and of English books printed abroad, 1475-1640 (2nd ed.).” But it’s actually doing a keyword “AND” search of WordPress blog posts. If you just type “STC” you get over a dozen other Short Title Catalogs before you reach A.W. Pollard’s, which is on the second page of results. And to get to the second page of results, you have to click back to “Older posts” rather than forward to “Next page,” as you might expect. [UPDATE: Turns out a temporary reversion to the default theme led to the site displaying “Older posts” and a backward arrow instead of “Next” and a forward arrow when I did my “STC” search. It was corrected a few hours later.]

At the Folger, newly-cataloged items will have the new form of the citation, but it will take a while before we can replace all the old forms. You’d think it would be a simple matter of updating each entry in a master list and having it automatically display correctly everywhere it appears, but library catalogs aren’t (yet!) generated from relational databases or other linked data. Each entry is a self-contained MARC record that needs to be updated individually through tedious-to-construct and easy-for-me-to-mess-up algorithms overnight, when catalogers aren’t actively working in the database. 2

Meanwhile, here are the fifteen most common “Cited in” citations in Hamnet in their old and new forms:

New: English short title catalogue

Old: Wing (2nd ed.)
New: Wing, D.G. Short-title catalogue of books printed in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and British America, and of English books printed in other countries, 1641-1700 (2nd ed.)

Old: STC (2nd ed.)
New: Pollard, A.W. Short-title catalogue of books printed in England, Scotland, & Ireland and of English books printed abroad, 1475-1640 (2nd ed.)

Old: Thomason
New: British Museum. Catalogue of the pamphlets, books, newspapers, and manuscripts relating to the Civil War, the Commonwealth, and Restoration, collected by George Thomason, 1640-1661

Old: VD 16
New: Verzeichnis der im deutschen Sprachbereich erschienenen Drucke des XVI. Jahrhunderts

Old: Pforzheimer
New: Carl H. Pforzheimer Library

Old: Jaggard, W. Shakespeare bibliography
New: (no change: it isn’t in Standard Citation Forms because it’s a single-author bibliography, and the way Folger catalogers constructed the entry already matches the new rules for formulating citations)

Old: Adams
New: Adams, H.M. Catalogue of books printed on the continent of Europe, 1501-1600, in Cambridge libraries

Old: Greg
New: Greg, W.W. Bibliography of the English printed drama to the Restoration

Old: Madan
New: Madan, F. Oxford books

Old: Ricci, S. de. Medieval and Renaissance mss.
New: Ricci, S. de. Census of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in the United States and Canada

Old: Goldsmiths’
New: Catalogue of the Goldsmiths’ Library of Economic Literature

Old: Steele
New: Crawford, J.L.L. Bibliography of royal proclamations of the Tudor and Stuart sovereigns and of others published under authority, 1485-1714

Old: Foxon
New: Foxon, D.F. English verse, 1701-1750

Some of these will take a lot of getting used to, especially since the MARC format doesn’t allow for cross-references in the “Cited in” field. I don’t even think twice about entering “STC” and a number on the Advanced Search tab in Hamnet. I’ll have to get used to entering “Pollard” and the number instead. Or (dare I mention it?) might the Folger break the rules, and add “also known as STC” to the end of each note? “Pollard” isn’t so bad, since the bibliography is also commonly referred to as “Pollard and Redgrave.” But “Verzeichnis der im deutschen Sprachbereich erschienenen Drucke des XVI. Jahrhunderts” instead of “VD 16”? Yikes.

Still, all in all, I’d rather have the fuller forms than not. I’ll save shouting “And get off my lawn!” while shaking my fist for another time.

  1. It’s actually slightly more complicated: contributors to the Eighteenth-Century Short Title Catalogue (ESTC), which later became the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC), worked from a competing list of standard forms, so many library catalogs have a mix of entries.
  2. MARC stands for MAchine Readable Cataloging, a data encoding standard created in the 1960s—when it was amazing—but which has remained structurally the same ever since. A replacement encoding standard is now in development, but is still a long way away, for practical purposes.


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