What is Bibliography?

What is bibliography if not a list of books? Bibliography is much more than your “works cited” page.

As a field of inquiry, bibliography examines the artifactual value of texts – including books, manuscripts, and digital texts – and how they reflect the people and cultures that created, acquired, and exchanged them. Bibliographers study the technologies used to carry texts to readers, valuing the close physical analysis of material artifacts and the social and economic systems that disperse texts in all their various forms around the globe.

A closer look

Explore the images and touch points below to see how bibliographers look at material texts and think about how they reflect the people and cultures that created, acquired, and exchanged them.

To navigate the images, click on one of the blue and black touchpoints below. To read another touchpoint, click anywhere else on the image and then click your next blue touchpoint to read the accompanying text.

  • An image of watermarked paper, watermark reading "Joseph Coles 1806"

    Chain lines are the impressions of the wires running along the wooden ribs of a paper mould which support the thinner wires forming the base of the mould. The impressions of these thinner wires, running at right angles to the chain lines, are known as wire lines. Chain and wire lines are frequently used in bibliographical studies to distinguish paper stocks. Studying the orientation of wire and chain lines can also help you determine format in books printed on laid paper. Watch this video for an explanation of wires and chains on a real paper mould!

    Watermarks are wire designs sewn into the paper mould which identify the manufacturer of the paper stock. Their positions can be used to determine the format of books, and they are often useful in dating paper, as the designs changed over time. In this example, the image shows one half of the sheet; Joseph Coles is the name of the paper manufacturer.

    Reference works can be of great use in identifying watermarks and their manufacturers. For English examples like this one, see Gravell, Thomas L., and George Miller. A Catalogue of Foreign Watermarks Found on Paper Used in America 1700-1835. (New York: Garland Publishing, 1979).

    Looking at Paper
  • A lion resting his head in one front paw and his other front paw on a cane is seated at a table. He wears a bandage on his head and a stag pendant around his neck. He is beset by a cloud of flies. There are three monkeys gathered around him, one of which is standing on the table and holding a spider to his neck. A rabbit sits under the table. A fox is holding up a vial which has a small horned and winged creature inside, and writing something. On the table are various bottles and containers. On the floor before the table is a crown, a broken scepter and sword, and two documents with seals.

    This image was made by an engraver and printed on a rolling press by a printer using special techniques and materials that cannot be found in a letterpress print shop. Usually, letterpress text is printed first and the printed sheets with blank spaces for images will be delivered to the rolling press printer for production. Yet another craftsman would be needed for binding.

    Etchings like this one were printed from flat copper plates, the faint outline of which is visible here. These outlines are called “plate marks” and can help readers today understand and identify the materials used to create a printed image.

    Anonymous print production is a common occurrence, especially when content is political, as it is in this broadside. (See the Folger catalog entry to learn more about the political content.) Neither the lettterpress printer who printed the text, nor the artist who designed the image, nor the draftsman who etched it, nor the rolling press printer who printed the etching on this print are known.

    Text and image: How were they printed together?

Who does bibliography?

Bibliographers come from across the disciplines in the humanities and work in a range of professional capacities. BSA members and practicing bibliographers are teaching faculty and students at institutions of higher learning; they are librarians and curators in public and research libraries; they are members of the antiquarian book trade; and they are individuals whose collecting interests draw them into this community of knowledge holders.

If your research, work, or collecting has you thinking about or studying the materiality of texts, you should consider yourself a bibliographer and become a member today!

Bibliographic or bibliographical? What’s the difference?

Bibliographic and bibliographical are two words with different meanings. The Bibliographical Society of America is so named because of our primary focus on the features of the material text.

Bibliographic refers to an item’s metadata and citational record. A catalog entry is a bibliographic record, for example. You might use the word in context such as this: 

Dorothy Porter Wesley’s bibliographic work on the output of Black writers is foundational to the study of Black and American bibliography. 

Dorothy Porter Wesley. “Library Sources for the Study of the Negro” [Notecards]. 1936. Dorothy Porter Wesley Papers. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Dorothy Porter Wesley. “Library Sources for the Study of the Negro” [Notecards]. 1936. Dorothy Porter Wesley Papers. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Bibliographical refers to studying any features of the material printed text. A bibliographical examination could consider watermarks, printing practices, provenance, etc., but it does not necessarily aim at producing bibliographic records. You might use the word in context such as this: 

Margaret M. Smith’s bibliographical study of the earliest printed title pages is an illuminating and concise examination of the development of title pages from the manuscript tradition to the codification of the form more familiar to us today.

Photograph of students reading in the Bordertown School library by Lewis Wickes Hine, ca. 1935. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Howard and Ellen Greenberg.

Further reading

We’ve created a short reading list to help you learn more. Follow the link below for key definitions of bibliographical terms, links to founding texts in the discipline, and more.