Bibliography Defined

The following is excerpted with permission of the author from Jean Peters, ed., BookCollecting: A Modern Guide (New York and London: R. R. Bowker, 1977), 97-101.

Descriptive Bibliography

by Terry Belanger

This chapter is concerned primarily with descriptive bibliography, especially with the terms that the book collector must master before he or she can use descriptive bibliographies intelligently and read booksellers’ catalogues wisely. For this purpose, we need to sharpen the definition of such a common word as edition. Publishers tend to use the word rather loosely, but edition has a precise bibliographical meaning. An edition of a book is all copies printed at one or later times from the same setting of type. Within an edition, all copies printed at any one time are called an impression. A number of impressions from the same setting of type may be produced over a period of many years, but they are all part of the same edition, because the type itself is identical in each of these impressions. In 1866, for instance, Thomas MacKellar wrote and published a manual of typography called The American Printer. He had electrotype plates made from the original setting of type, and over the next dozen years or so, he issued nine further impressions of The American Printer, making only the occasional minor correction between one impression and the next. These nine later impressions were identified on the back of the title pages as the second through tenth editions; but only in 1878, when he thoroughly revised and reset his text, did he produce in bibliographical terms his second edition—called on the title page the eleventh edition. Again electrotyping the setting of type is used in this edition, MacKellar put out seven further impression of the second edition— labeled the twelfth through eighteenth editions on the back of the title pages.

An issue is that part of an edition offered for sale at one time, or as a consciously planned unit, and an edition is occasionally sold by means of several different issues. Different issues within an edition will be largely the same, but they might, for example, have different title pages, one giving the name of a New York publisher for distribution in the United States, the other giving the name of a London publisher for distribution in Great Britain. Sometimes books are later remarketed with slight additional matter or with a new title page date. In 1842, the London publisher Henry G. Bohn reissued Charles Timperley’s Dictionary of Printers and Printing, which had originally been published in 1839. Bohn replaced the original title page with a new one and changed the title of the book to An Encyclopedia of Literary and Typographical Anecdotes, and he added a 12-page supplement at the end. In all other respects, the two issues—both using the same sheets printed in 1839—are identical.

Issues are usually determined by the publisher or publishers after the book has been printed. Where there is a substantial difference in the printed text of two copies of a book, we are dealing, not with different issues, but with different editions.

State refers to the minor differences in the printed text between one copy and another of the same book. When an error in the text is discovered during the printing of the pages, for example, the press is stopped long enough to make the correction. Sheets printed before the error was noticed constitute the uncorrected state; sheets printed after it was caught constitute the corrected state. Thus in the first Shakespeare folio of 1623, page 277 is incorrectly printed 273 in a few copies. Clearly, the error was caught early in the pressrun, because most surviving copies have the correct page number. Variant states generally occur in the printed sheets, before they go to the binder, and before publication. Variant states are caused before publication, just as variant issues are caused upon or after publication.

These terms—edition, impression, issue, and state—are important to the book collector because they help describe priority of publication. Collectors tend to desire the earliest form in which a book was published, preferring the uncorrected state of the first issue of the first impression of the first edition to all later ones. From the general reader’s point of view, this attitude is silly: Why not collect the most correct edition, rather than the earliest one? William Matheson has dealt with the logic (and illogic) of book collecting in Chapter 1 of this book, however, so my task here is not to defend the sometimes seemingly indefensible preferences of collectors, but rather to lay out the vocabulary used to determine and describe these preferences.

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:

  1. 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. Many examples of subject-oriented enumerative bibliography are given in G. T. Tanselle’s chapter “The Literature of Book Collecting” in this book.
  2. 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.

Further discussion of the various sorts of bibliography may be found in Ray Stokes’ The Function of Bibliography (London: Andre Deutsch, 1969).

In the creation and dissemination of a printed book, many persons take part: to move from book production to distribution, they may include (besides the writer) the typefounder, the papermaker, the printer, the illustrator, the binder, the publisher, the retail bookseller (or librarian), and the book collector (or library reader). Each of these individuals can affect the physical book as it comes to us—some more than others, to be sure. But all need to be accounted for if the complete history of a book is to be known and described.

For further information about the various definitions of “bibliography” and for various continuing education courses dealing with the subject, consult the Rare Book School web site (