Examples of catalogues and of a bibliography

Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. There is celestial irony in the fact that the most important achievement of Anglo-American analytical bibliography is a series of catalogues. ‘England’, or the English-speaking countries, which increasingly include the Americas and other colonies, is the only part of the world that can vaunt, for its known and extant output, a complete and authoritative bibliographical listing up to the year 1800. If at first sight this circumstance does not seem impressive to an outsider, account should be taken of the fact that no other country can provide a single listing that goes beyond 1500 (and even this operation involves extracting the relevant entries from the ongoing Incunable Short Title Catalogue (ISTC), housed at the British Library in London, through generally consulted in the version in Cd-Rom, now in its second edition). The listings up to 1700 take the form of two catalogues, Short-Title Catalogue (STC) and Wing, while what was previously known as the Eighteenth Century Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) took the account up to 1800. Strictly speaking, all these catalogues are ‘enumerative’ bibliographies, but, like the iceberg, a lot of analysis is hidden from sight and, despite the small space available (‘short-title’ originally meant no more than a single line of type, though this norm fortunately has been dispensed with), it is amazing how much information is packed into the traditionally brief entries.

The reasons that have allowed ‘England’ this remarkable achievement are essentially threefold. First, the concentration of significant material in a small number of collections in Britain and America, which have over the years employed key figures in the history of bibliography among their librarians. Traditional STC practice is to provide locations for up to ten copies and has its own particular concept of the geography of the world. The preface states: “In the entries the Atlantic Ocean is represented by a semicolon. Up to five locations on each side have been listed with a view to geographical distribution. The prime British locations are: L, O, C, D, E; and the American F, HN, HD, N, NY. In STC geography Australian and New Zealand libraries appear on the American side” (2nd ed., vol. 1, p. xlix). For those not familiar with STC conventions, the symbols stand for the British Library (L), Bodleian Library (O), Cambridge University Library (C), Trinity College Library, Dublin (D), National Library of Scotland (E), Folger Shakespeare Library (F), Huntingdon Library, San Marino (HN), Houghton Library, Harvard University (HD), Newberry Library, Chicago (N), and New York Public Library (NY). A little while ago I carried out a crude count on letters A and B in the 2nd edition of the STC, in order to obtain some idea about the extent of the British Library’s holdings of books printed in the British Isles in the Sixteenth century. The figure that emerged was just under 60%, while, if account was taken only of volumes over a certain size, the library’s holdings approached 90%; see Neil Harris, ‘Il cappuccino, la principessa e la botte’, in Antonella Grassi – Giuliano Laurentini, Incunaboli e cinquecentine delle biblioteche dei Cappuccini di Toscana (Firenze, Edizioni Polistampa, 2003, pp. 7-39). A parallel operation was conducted on the same pair of letters in the ongoing Italian census, in order to discover what percentage of the same country’s Sixteenth-century output was owned by the two principal National libraries in Florence and Rome. The figure that emerged was that both libraries had a little under 30% of what was recorded in the Census, with some 11% of titles in common; see Istituto Centrale per il Catalogo Unico delle Biblioteche Italiane e per le Informazioni Bibliografiche, Le edizioni italiane del XVI secolo (usually abbreviated as Edit16: Roma, 1989-1996; further thoughts of publication have however been abandoned and the whole catalogue is now available in electronic form at http://edit16.iccu.sbn.it). A further comparison, conducted this time on the British Library’s excellent short-title catalogues for Italian books (1958, with a Supplement in 1986, updated 1990), showed that if the latter library had taken part in the census, its holdings would have corresponded to nearly 40% of the listing, and therefore is the largest single collection of Italian Sixteenth-Century books in the world. When comparing the bibliographical sources such as the English STC and the Italian Edit16, we have to take account furthermore of the fact that, while the former – at least in theory – covers all the libraries on the planet, the latter is limited to those within the peninsula and therefore does not describe the many rare editions found only in collections outside Italy. It would be realistic therefore to assume in real terms that the BNCF and the BNCR can each only boast something in the order of 20-25% of surviving output for the chosen period. In practical terms this is clearly a huge difference, since a bibliographical project in which 60% of the required material can be found under one roof is very different from one in which only 20% of the same can be found together. To the advantageous organisation of the collections in Britain has to be added, especially in financial terms, the considerable weight of American academic interest.

Among the unquestionable benefits of having an accurate, trustworthy catalogue listing for all known output up to a given date is the possibility it provides for making the whole corpus available in reproduction: in 1987 University Microfilms International at Ann Arbor began a project of microfilming the contents of the STC (2034 reels of microfilm), followed in 1995 by another for Wing (2486 reels). Digital technology has clearly made inroads in this field as well, since the microfilming project has been abandoned and replaced by two state-of-the-art schemes: EEBO (Early English Books Online), which provides images relating to 125,000 editions published up to 1700 (i.e. the period covered by STC and Wing), and the parallel ECCO (Eighteenth Century Collections Online), which does the same for approximately 150,000 editions belonging to the period 1701-1800 (i.e. the period covered by the original ESTC). The cost of subscriptions to these schemes, however, is astronomical and can only be taken up by large institutional libraries, while, at least in the early and actual phases of the project, most of the images have been provided by the precedent collection of microfilms, with a consequent loss of quality and clarity.

The second reason lies in the low profile of printing in England up to the end of the Seventeenth century, so that compared to Germany or Italy there are many fewer books to describe. According to the 2nd edition of the ISTC in Cd-Rom (1998), only 1,5% of incunabula, or 395 out of a known surviving total of 26,163 editions, were produced in Britain, while the country as a whole took a long time to free itself from the cage of London, Oxford and Cambridge. The real explosion in production occurred with the Civil War, so that the STC ends in 1640, also because a termination at 1600 would have meant describing imperfectly the output of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. To the low output has to be added the equally important fact that previous to c. 1700 very few books printed in the English-speaking world circulated outside that area: for instance, the Italian census of incunabula (Indice generale degli incunabuli, Rome 1943-81, abbreviated as IGI) shows that in five centuries only four English Fifteenth-Century books have made it over the Alps (see nos. 4174-75, 5695, 5706). Another eloquent example is provided by the list of libraries whose collections are used in the STC: for the French-speaking world, apart from the three great Parisian libraries (Arsenal, Mazarine and Nationale), it records only the English Convent at Bruges, for Italy the Collegio Inglese in Rome, and for Spain the Collegio-seminario de Ingleses in Valladolid. The omission of the other libraries in these countries is not due to a failure to check the catalogues; more simply the books are not there.

In terms of number crunching, the first edition of the STC in 1926 contained 26,143 entries, while the second, in order  not to change the STC numbers by which certain books by now were widely known, gave additions an entry number including a decimal point, so that totals are not easy to acquire. Fortunately statistics based on the second edition have been provided in Maureen Bell – John Barnard, ‘Provisional Count of STC titles 1475-1640’, Publishing History, no. 31 (1992), pp. 48-64, according to whom 475 editions were produced in the Fifteenth century, 15,127 in the Sixteenth, and 20,847 in the first forty years of the Seventeenth, for a final total of 36,689 entries, of which 2,444 are really printed on the Continent for the English market (this fact explains the discrepancy with the figure for incunabula furnished by the ISTC). Just to get a rough sense of comparison with a major Renaissance book producing country, the ongoing census of Sixteenth-Century Italian books in the peninsula’s libraries, which takes no account of the many rare items found only outside Italy, has a total of 15,487 entries in the four volumes so far published, which cover however only the first three letters of the alphabet, in other words more than the whole STC in the equivalent period. Wing covers only sixty years but in its original sequence contains 68,605 entries, albeit with some cancelled entries and some bis, most of it due to the intense pamphleteering of the revolutionary period, conserved primarily in the collection of Thomason tracts at the British Library, containing 24,000 items, most of them unique. Again a count for Wing has been furnished by Maureen Bell – John Barnard, based on the second edition, amounting to 90,607 editions (of which 75,285 in London alone), or, counting in the four decades described in the STC, 111,454 for the Seventeenth century in its entirety; see ‘Provisional Count of Wing Titles 1641-1700’, Publishing History, n. 44 (1998), pp. 89-97. With respect to its younger sister, the ISTC, the Eighteenth-century cataloguing project is less known in Continental Europe, though it is not only the earlier but also the more innovative, especially in the attention dedicated to the description of all printing phenomena, including broadsides and other ephemera. Recent developments have seen the paper versions of the STC and Wing being transformed into electronic format and united with the former Eighteenth Century STC to comprise a single file from 1473 to 1800 rebaptized the English Short Title Catalogue, of which the acronym, rather confusingly, is still ESTC. A third edition of the whole file 1473-1800 was published in Cd-Rom in 2003, containing 465,000 records and the location of three million exemplars, so that, after a little bit of mathematics, the items produced in the Eighteenth century amount to a little over 335,000 records. Gigantism is clearly a problem in a project of this scale and some sharp criticism of ESTC structure and procedure can be found in William P. Williams-William Baker, ‘Caveat lector. English Books 1475-1700 and the Electronic Age’, Analytical & enumerative bibliography, n.s., vol. 12 (2001), pp. 1-29; James E. May, ‘Who will edit the ESTC? (and have you checked OCLC lately?)’, ibid., pp. 288-304.

The third reason is undoubtedly the input, at times indirect, provided by successive generations of bibliographical scholars, beginning with the great trio of Pollard, McKerrow and Greg, the eldest of whom masterminded the publication of the first version of the STC in 1926. Significantly the publisher of the STC was and remains the Bibliographical Society of London, founded in 1892, whose regular meetings meant a concentration of resources and expertise without parallel in bibliographical history, except perhaps when Fredson Bowers dined alone [http://www.bibsoc.org.uk]. On the history of the society, see the volumes issued respectively for the fiftieth anniversary and for the centenary: The Bibliographical Society 1892-1942: Studies in Retrospect (London, the Bibliographical Society, 1945) and The Book Encompassed: Studies in Twentieth-Century Bibliography, ed. Peter Davison (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992).

  • A Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland & Ireland and of English Books Printed Abroad 1475-1640, compiled by A. W. Pollard & G. R. Redgrave (London, The Bibliographical Society, 1926). The second edition, revised and enlarged, begun by W. A. Jackson & F. S. Ferguson, completed by Katharine F. Pantzer, is in three volumes (1976-91). The basis of the project was a previous catalogue published in 1884, which described the English holdings of the library of the British Museum (now British Library), and the whole work, first suggested at a meeting of the Bibliographical Society in 1918, was executed in an extraordinarily short time. A small curiosity involves the date of the earliest book in the catalogue, since printing was only introduced into England by Caxton in 1476, but the STC includes entries for ‘English’ books made on the Continent and in particular for the Recuyell of the histories of Troye by Raoul Le Fèvre attributed to Bruges (n. 15375). More recent scholarship suggests that, rather than 1475, this edition was printed as early as 1473 [see the correction in vol. 3, p. 284], but the title of the repertory has remained unvariant. On the efficacy of the short-title entry as a model of description, see Stokes, The Function of Bibliography cit., pp. 33-40.
  • Donald Wing, Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and British America and of English Books Printed in Other Countries, 1641-1700 (New York, printed for the Index Society by Columbia University Press, 1945-51, 3 vols; 2nd edition, New York, Modern Language Association of America, 1972-1998, 4 vols). As has happened several times in the history of bibliography, work done in Britain is taken up and carried on in the United States. Wing employs the same basic conventions as the STC, though some of the books are more complex to describe and the short-title method shows signs of strain. The second edition represents and inevitable expansion, albeit with changes less sweeping than those in the STC.
  • The Eighteenth Century Short Title Catalogue. Conceived from the beginning as an electronic project available on BLAISE line from the British Library, the ESTC was issued in for the first time 1990 both in CD-Rom and in micro-form. The electronic online file is also available through the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL), with which many major European collections are associated. The project is associated above all with the name of Robin Alston, who provides a lengthy, and sometimes polemical, account in ‘The Eighteenth Century STC: A Personal History’ [2000] at the web site http://www.r-alston.co.uk . This site deserves careful exploration moreover by anyone interested in the links between bibliography, cataloguing and information science.

Otherwise examples of bibliographies and of bibliographical method abound, so that my choice is eclectic and essentially limited to one work.

  • W. W. Greg, A Bibliography of the English Printed Drama to the Restoration, London, printed for the Bibliographical Society at the University Press, Oxford, 1939-59, 4 vols. Bowers states that a “complete reading of this work is essential for an understanding of the whole background of Elizabethan printing of play manuscripts” (Principles cit., p. 16). Personally I have to confess that I have never read these four massive tomes from cover to cover, since la vie est breve et Proust est long, as we say in Lyon. Nevertheless Greg’s thinking about bibliography and textual editing derive largely from the intense labour undergone in the construction of this bibliographical masterpiece. To travel through the artifice in its entirety is possibly too great a task for a non-specialist in Elizabethan printing, but, after reading the introduction in vol. 1 and the postface in vol. 4, to thumb through these pages is an awesome and humbling experience, not least for the quality of the typography.