I’d like to make a pitch for recording a specific type of manuscript annotation in printed books and manuscripts: the “book age calculation.” These calculations turn up frequently on pastedowns and endleaves, and sometimes right in the middle of texts. They are usually in pencil, but sometimes appear in ink as well, as in this example from last week’s Crocodile.
Here’s another example from the same manuscript, this time in pencil:
Book age calculations are everywhere once you start looking. From Folger MS V.b.210:
These are just three examples that I encountered as part of my daily work. But they represent a good range: people in 1672, 1769, and 1872 all asked the same question of the text(s) they were reading.
But what are they really doing? When does something seem old enough to warrant calculating its age? Before we even ask that question, perhaps first we should ask: are they calculating for oldness, or value, or something else? What sort of book warrants a book age calculation? When did people stop doing this? The latest calculations I’ve seen are from the nineteenth century—did people get better at mental calculations after this, or make their calculations elsewhere because writing on old books was no longer deemed acceptable? Are readers making this calculation, or booksellers?
If the Bibliographic Standards Committee of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section came up with a snazzy term to add to their controlled vocabularies (thesauri for accessing special collections by form, genre, and physical characteristic, among other things) and catalogers adopted the term and described the calculations consistently in copy-specific notes, we would be able to take a quantitative approach to how readers approached “oldish-seeming” texts through the ages.
Is there value in this? Is there a less clunky term than book age calculation?