What is bibliography? I don’t think I want to answer that question straight away.

You see, most extant definitions of bibliography have been produced by the simple device of having bibliographers sit in front of a mirror. The bibliographers look into the silvered surface and describe themselves. In this way, over the years, a bewildering number of definitions of bibliography have been produced by people whose differing ideas about what bibliography is usually relate to what they think it can do for the image they have of themselves and of their own lives. Of course most of these definitions differ no more in real terms than the various makes of motor vehicle: a tin box on rubber wheels is still a tin box on rubber wheels, usually in a traffic jam, whether it is made by Fiat, Renault or Rolls Royce, and thus all definitions of bibliography state that it has to do with the description of books. Trifling distinctions however lead to extensive and sometimes violent debate.

The real danger inevitably lies the tendency of any and every form of scholarship to magnify its own importance. In a passage that I invite all serious researchers to keep framed above their worktable A.E. Housman warns that “everybody has his favourite study, and he is therefore disposed to lay down, as the aim of learning in general, the aim which his favourite study seems specially fitted to achieve, and the recognition of which as the aim of learning in general would increase the popularity of that study and the importance of those who profess it” (1892). Forewarned is forearmed, so this alternative prospectus will not make any sort of claim for the intellectual, political, academic, social, moral and monetary status of bibliography. It should be read instead as a sort of hitchhiker’s guide through the various citadels of bibliography, with friendly advice about what to do if the natives prove hostile.

The real obstacle in providing any sort of an introduction to bibliography, even to that more limited branch that goes under the name of analytical (or physical or material) bibliography, lies nevertheless in the temptation to transform it into a guide to life, the universe and everything. No text has ever been produced and transmitted as a written or printed document that has not been the object of some sort of bibliographical attention, even if it is only at the mundane level of national bibliographies, while many have been the object of protracted, lengthy, intense and controversial analysis. As a result, bibliographies of bibliographies have become important research tools (the best known being that by Theodore Besterman), and such has been their proliferation that bibliographies of bibliographies of bibliographies are no longer an unusual phenomenon.

This course on ‘analytical bibliography’ is taught by a person of British nationality, Scottish mother, Welsh father, born in Uganda, educated in England, who for the last twenty years has been resident in Italy and spent most of his time studying that country’s printed Renaissance literature, with occasional excursions into the output of Lyons and Paris. This potentially explosive cocktail of origin, education, choice and scholarly endeavour  gives the course a distinctive flavour. Though the present listing is no more than a drop of water falling into an ocean, it retains a small ambition to make a splash and also to provide information about articles and books, as well as scraps of  biography relating to the scholars that produced them, that are generally thought to have contributed to the growth of analytical bibliography as a discipline. Generally thought, of course means singly thought by myself, so if something important is missing, it can be safely attributed to simple dislike or wanton prejudice or rank ignorance on my part, for none of which I apologise.

A practised bibliographer ought to find few surprises in this recital of the titles of some ‘classic’ writings on bibliographical themes, mostly in the Anglo-American tradition. To help the neophyte, the nervous and the timid, I have provided notes, sometimes even debunking notes, occasionally even sarcastic and cruel notes, suggesting how some of these works can be approached and read. We should always remember that even a bibliographical classic is a text that has been written and transmitted, so that it belongs to its own time and in turn needs to be subjected to historical, literary and – why not? – bibliographical analysis. We begin therefore with definitions (§ 1), followed by a list of the principal manuals of printing (§ 2) and of bibliography (§ 3). Paper analysis has become increasingly important in recent bibliographical research and therefore, though the manufacturing processes involved would require a separate course, some indications are provided about the principal texts and the nature of the critical debate (§ 4). At this point we need to see bibliography in action in its chosen field, i.e. the text of Shakespeare (§ 5), followed by some notable examples of catalogues and  bibliographies in the English language (§ 6). The feature of Anglo-American bibliography that outsiders find most unusual, and sometimes unsettling, is its constant application to textual matters, not to mention the fact that its practitioners have made important statements about the theory and practice of editing texts, most notably Greg’s ‘Rationale of Copy-Text’ (§ 7). Obviously a tradition of the critical importance of analytical bibliography has had both friends and enemies, supporters and scoffers, if only in riposte to the academic power wielded by some of its practitioners. A full enumeration of the debate would require a large-scale bibliography, but some significant challenges, perhaps right, perhaps wrong, sometimes wrong-headed, invariably wilful and idiosyncratic, yet generally stimulating, are pointed out. The criterion for inclusion is either that they express a widely-held position or, more simply, that I find them intelligent, but again the reader is warned that they need to be read in terms of their original historical and critical context (§ 8). Quite often the challenge led to important redefinitions regarding the role and purpose of the various forms of bibliography (§ 9). The progress of bibliography in the second half of the Twentieth century has seen significant attempts to apply methods developed in the English-speaking world to other literatures, in particular those of Western Europe. For France, see also the details provided in the preliminary reading list. Here therefore further information is provided about bibliographical proselytism in Germany, Holland, Italy and Spain (§ 10). The final and somewhat lengthy section is taken up by a thematic vocabulary relating to technical problems in early printing together with bibliographical methods and instruments employed to solve them (§ 11).

What this prospectus aims to make clear is the absolute unimportance of bibliography as a social force. Although the compilation of lists of books is among the oldest of civilised practises, in many ways bibliography is not a profession at all and therefore often has to fight off challenges that threaten its very existence. What is rarely perceived is its elective nature. In simple terms it is not possible to make a living by being a bibliographer (and I know nobody who does so). Bibliographers at the very most can obtain a salary (usually from a university or a library) for saying how bibliography should be done but not for doing it, and as such have the same status as poets (see the exposition of the same dilemma by W.H. Auden in The Dyers Hand: “It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practising it” (1963), foreword).

This fact is not necessarily an obstacle, but the elective nature of bibliography as a discipline explains both its sheer fragility and its extraordinary strength. On the one hand the fact that bibliographers are volunteer workers in the vineyard, sacrificing both their time and their own private resources to follow an idea or a whim, means that overall control of what is being done can never be achieved, that eccentricity and idiosyncrasy abound, and that an infinite number of projects are never finished or have completion times that a absolutely biblical; on the other there are no requisites for being a bibliographer, apart for patience, fortitude and a capacity for slow, deep thought. These qualities certainly mean that genuine analytical bibliographers today are rarer, and much less cuddly, than giant pandas, endangered by the fast-food nature of academic research in the humanities, by the meretricious charms of book history, and by the enormous changes in the way knowledge is organised and controlled in libraries. Nevertheless they will continue to survive, since society cannot do without bibliographers any more than it can do without poets.

A true analytical bibliographer is always a person who, when they come face-to-face with a written or printed physical artefact, ancient or modern, sees things that other people cannot, often to the exasperation of the said other people, who cannot see how they do it (Rule n° 1: Don’t explain). Part of this ability is based on sheer experience, on the sheer number of books examined, on the sheer number of libraries visited; part of it derives from long study of the theory and practise of the making of books and from a knowledge of what other bibliographers have achieved; and part of it derives from caring. Bibliography is therefore about how to see and what to see, and the object of this text is to help you do just that. In the words of Nanna in Pietro Aretino’s marvellous Dialogo... nel quale la Nanna il primo giorno insegna a Pippa sua figliuola a esser puttana (1536): “ io che sono stata la più scelerata e ribalda puttana di Roma, anzi d’Italia, anzi del mondo, con il far male, con il dir peggio, assassinando gli amici e i nimici e i benvoglienti a la spiegata, son diventata d’oro e non di carlini, chi sarai tu vivendo come io ti insegno?”. (Decency forbids me from translating this passage, but, if you have an Italian mother-in-law, you might ask her for an impromptu rendering).