Bibliography Defined: Further Reading

We’ve created a short reading list to help you learn more. Most of the texts below are excerpts from longer works by their respective authors. While many of the writers cited focus on particular aspects of textual materiality within disciplinary boundaries, their approach to studying those texts can be valuable to readers from across the disciplines and professions.

Follow the links below for key definitions of bibliographical terms, links to founding texts in the discipline, and more.

I thus came to the view that bibliography was the study of books as material objects irrespective of their contents. (25)

… ‘books’ include not only printed books but manuscripts, and indeed every sort of record made by the symbolic representation of language. (25)

For in the ultimate resort the object of bibliographical study is, I believe, to reconstruct for each particular book the history of its life, to make it reveal in its most intimate detail the story of its birth and adventures as the material vehicle of the living word. As an extension of this follows the investigation of the methods of production in general and of the conditions of survival. (27)

… the central problem of bibliography was to ascertain the exact circumstances and conditions in which every particular book was produced … (28)

W. W. Greg, “Bibliography–A Retrospect,” in The Bibliographical Society, 1892–1942: Studies in Retrospect. London: The Bibliographical Society, 1945, pp. 23–31.

A specialist in English Renaissance drama and the early printing of Shakespeare, W. W. Greg (1875-1959) was a leading figure in the early-20th-century ”New Bibliography,” which sought to establish bibliography as a rigorous field rooted in the physical evidence books provide about their own making. While later scholars like D. F. McKenzie challenged his claim that the materiality of books can be fully understood apart from consideration of their contents, his insistence on the necessity of understanding the physical processes of textual transmission had a profound impact on editorial practice.

Terry Belanger on types of bibliographical practice (1977) ↑

To the book collector, the word bibliography properly means the study of books; a bibliographer is one who studies them. But the word is shopworn. Bibliography has many common definitions, and because collectors, scholars, and librarians too often use the word indiscriminately, it lacks precision. For this reason, bibliography generally attaches itself to qualifying adjectives like enumerative, systematic, analytical, critical, descriptive, historical, or textual. Some definitions of the resulting, frequently found compounds are in order. The two main sorts of bibliography are:

  • Enumerative bibliography: the listing of books according to some system or reference plan, for example, by author, by subject, or by date. The implication is that the listings will be short, usually providing only the author’s name, the book’s title, and date and place of publication. Enumerative bibliography (sometimes called systematic bibliography) attempts to record and list, rather than to describe minutely. Little or no information is likely to be provided about physical aspects of the book such as paper, type, illustrations, or binding. A library’s card catalog is an example of an enumerative bibliography, and so is the list at the back of a book of works consulted, or a book like the New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, which catalogues briefly the works of English writers and the important secondary material about them. …

  • Analytical bibliography: the study of books as physical objects; the details of their production, the effects of the method of manufacture on the text. When Sir Walter Greg called bibliography a science of the transmission of literary documents, he was referring to analytical bibliography. Analytical bibliography may deal with the history of printers and booksellers, with the description of paper or bindings, or with textual matters arising during the progression from writer’s manuscript to published book.

Analytical bibliography (sometimes called critical bibliography) may be divided into several types, as follows:

  • Historical bibliography: the history of books broadly speaking, and of the persons, institutions, and machines producing them. Historical bibliography may range from technological history to the history of art in its concern with the evidence books provide about culture and society.

  • Textual bibliography: the relationship between the printed text as we have it before us, and that text as conceived by its author. Handwriting is often difficult to decipher; compositors make occasional mistakes, and proofreaders sometimes fail to catch them; but (especially in the period before about 1800) we often have only the printed book itself to tell us what the author intended. Textual bibliography (sometimes called textual criticism) tries to provide us with the most accurate text of a writer’s work. The equipment of the textual bibliographer is both a profound knowledge of the work of the writer being edited (and of his or her period) and an equally profound knowledge of contemporary printing and publishing practices.

Descriptive bibliography: the close physical description of books. How is the book put together? What sort of type is used and what kind of paper? How are the illustrations incorporated into the book? How is it bound? Like the textual bibliographer, the descriptive bibliographer must have a good working knowledge of the state of the technology of the period in order to describe a book’s physical appearance both accurately and economically. Descriptive bibliographies are books that give full physical descriptions of the books they list, enabling us to tell one edition from another and to identify significant variations within a single edition. Good descriptive bibliographies are therefore indispensable to book collectors, whatever their fields of interest and whatever the time period their collections cover. Unfortunately, good descriptive bibliographies do not exist for all fields and for all periods, and, as a result, collectors must frequently do their own spade work, learning enough about the techniques of descriptive bibliography to distinguish among editions, issues, and impressions without outside help. The bulk of this chapter therefore concerns itself with the vocabulary of descriptive bibliography, concentrating on the earlier periods of bookmaking (because a chronological understanding of the structure of books is essential), but also sketching in the relationship between the handmade and the machine-produced book.

Analytical bibliography is concerned with the whole study of the physical book: its history, its appearance, and the influence of the manner of production on its text. The three types of analytical bibliography—historical, descriptive, and textual—are all closely interrelated. It is lunatic to attempt to draw overly precise distinctions among them. They are equally important as aids to our understanding of books.

Terry Belanger, “Descriptive Bibliography,” excerpted from Jean Peters, ed. Book Collecting: A Modern Guide (New York and London: R. R. Bowker, 1977), pp. 97–101

Terry Belanger has taught courses in bibliography at Columbia University and at the University of Virginia since 1972. The founding director of Rare Book School, he is a 2005 MacArthur Fellow.

D. F. McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (1999) ↑

… bibliography is the discipline that studies texts as recorded forms, and the processes of their transmission, including their production and reception. So stated, it will not seem very surprising. What the word “texts” also allows, however, is the extension of present practice to include all forms of texts, not merely books or Greg’s signs on pieces of parchment or paper. It also frankly accepts that bibliographers should be concerned to show that forms effect meaning. Beyond that, it allows us to describe not only the technical but the social processes of their transmission. In those quite specific ways, it accounts for non-book texts, their physical forms, textual versions, technical transmission, institutional control, their perceived meanings, and social effects. It accounts for a history of the book and, indeed, of all printed forms including all textual ephemera as a record of cultural change, whether in mass civilization or minority culture. (12–13)

[Bibliography] can, in short, show the human presence in any recorded text. (29)

D. F. McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Like many prominent 20th century bibliographers, D. F. McKenzie (1931-1999) was a specialist in early English printing. In contrast to earlier, narrower definitions of bibliography, he advocated for a broader approach that attended to all figures involved in a book’s production and reception, including publishers, booksellers, and readers. In his best-known work, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (Cambridge, 1986) McKenzie asserted that the physical form of a text always affects its meaning and, furthermore, that “text” should extend beyond the written word to include many different kinds of communication. 

G. Thomas Tanselle, “Bibliography Defined” (2020) ↑

The object of bibliographical study is to reconstruct for each particular book the history of its life, to make it reveal in its most intimate detail the story of its birth and adventures as the material vehicle of the living word.

–W. W. Greg (from “Bibliography–A Retrospect,” 1945)

Bibliography is the branch of historical scholarship that examines any aspect of the production, dissemination, and reception of handwritten and printed books as physical objects. (“Books” is shorthand here for various kinds of text-bearing objects, including pamphlets and single leaves.) Among the characteristic activities of this field are the following:

  • analyzing physical clues in specific books in order to reveal details of the underlying production process;

  • describing the paper (or parchment), letterforms, design, illustrations, structure, binding, and post-publication features of specific books;

  • determining the relationship among books that carry texts of the same works (texts both verbal and nonverbal, such as musical and choreographic notation);

  • writing narrative histories and technical studies of papermaking, paper use, ink, handwriting, type faces, type manufacture, book design, typesetting procedures, graphic processes, bookbinding, printing, publishing, bookselling, book collecting, libraries, provenance, and the role of the physical book in society and culture–along with biographies of the persons involved in these stories.

Traditional bibliographical approaches are also now being applied to objects carrying electronic texts. Because textual criticism and scholarly editing are partially dependent on physical evidence, they are included among the concerns of bibliographical societies. But the making of simple lists of books, which usually focuses on the subject matter of their texts, is not within the scope of bibliographical societies except when that subject matter relates to books as physical objects, or when the physicality of the books listed is recognized (as in a record of those produced in a given geographical area). What links all bibliographical pursuits is an understanding of the significance of books as tangible products of human endeavor.

Written for this website by G. Thomas Tanselle, 2020.

G. Thomas Tanselle is a former president and an Honorary Member of the BSA and a Gold Medalist of the Bibliographical Society in London.  He has published many books and articles on textual criticism and all aspects of bibliography.

Derrick Spires, “On Liberation Bibliography” (2022) ↑

Drawing on liberation theology developed in Latin American and African American contexts by Gustavo Gutierrez, James Cone, and others, along with the work of Black studies, Black feminist criticism, and feminist bibliography, this talk offers liberation bibliography as a conscious and intentional practice of identifying and repairing the harms of systemic racism, settler colonialism, heteropatriarchy, and other oppressive structures in and through bibliography and bibliographical study—that is, the study of “any aspect of the production, dissemination, and reception” of “various kinds of text-bearing objects.” (5)

Derrick Spires, “On Liberation Bibliography: The 2021 BSA Annual Meeting Keynote.Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 116:1 (March 2022), pp. 1–20.

Derrick R. Spires is Associate Professor of English at the University of Delaware and the author of The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States (UPenn Press, 2019).

Lisa Maruca and Kate Ozment, “What is Critical Bibliography?” (2022) ↑

We position critical bibliography as the intersection of critical theory and bibliographic study. We define “bibliography” in Greg’s terms as the study of the lives of material books, widely defined, including their production, circulation, and reception. … We use “critical theory” to signify theories resonant with those that grew out of the Frankfurt School, which sought to liberate human beings from oppression and was extended by twentieth-century thinkers like bell hooks, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Edward Said, and Eve Sedgwick. Resulting discourses include feminist studies, critical race studies, postcolonialism, Marxism, queer theory, and disability studies, to name a few. Twisting the two threads together, critical bibliography explores how critical theories can (re)shape our histories of the book and bookish objects and in turn how bibliography can be used as a tool to resist oppression. (231–232)

Lisa Maruca and Kate Ozment, “What is Critical Bibliography?Criticism 64:3/4 (Summer/Fall 2022), pp. 231–236.

Associate Professor of English at Wayne State University, Lisa Maruca’s most recent book is The Work of Print: Authorship and the English Text Trades, 1660-1760 (University of Washington Press: 2007).

Kate Ozment is Associate Professor of English at Cal Poly Pomona where she teaches Anglo-American book cultures, women’s writing, and digital humanities. She is co-editor of the Women in Book History Bibliography and contributes to the Women’s Print History Project and BibSite.