Manuals of bibliography

Anglo-American analytical bibliography nowadays has a solid basis in a trio of ‘great’ manuals, produced in a period of nearly half a century, that nevertheless expound very different viewpoints and sometimes even clash. Only the first is to any extent reader-friendly, in the sense that it can be enjoyed while sitting in an armchair before a fire. The other two are best coped with by keeping them together on a bookshelf and making reference to single chapters according to need. In order of publication these books are:

Ronald B. McKerrow, An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1927 [and reprints]). In my modest, or not-so-modest, opinion, despite its venerable age this book is still the best way for a novice to acquire a basic knowledge of early printing techniques, as well as an insight into how the pioneers of bibliography went about their business. The language is simple and the exposition admirable, while, as the title makes clear, no previous knowledge of bibliography is required on the part of the reader. The recent 1994 reprint includes a useful biographical introduction by David McKitterick on the author’s life (1872-1940) and writings; see also the listing in The Library, s. IV, vol. 21 (1941), pp. 229-263. Information about the publishing history of the manual, including a series of small textual revisions, can be found in David Vander Meulen, ‘Revision in Bibliographical Classics: “McKerrow” and “Bowers”’, Studies in Bibliography, vol. 52 (1999), pp. 215-245.

Fredson Bowers, Principles of Bibliographical Description (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1949 [and reprints]). The Bible of how to draw up a bibliographical description, including lengthy discussions of arcane problems such as the hierarchy of state, issue (and impression), edition and ideal copy (see § 11). It is very explicitly a technical manual, intended for specialists, of great complexity, with numerous references to case histories, examples and problems, all of which require thoughtful study, while at times the prose is about as edible as a dry biscuit in a desert (a story still does the rounds that the first reviewers asked each other which page they had given up on). But militant, diehard bibliographers are easily recognised by the dog-eared, well-thumbed aspect of their copy of the Principles and by their conviction that “the basic function of a descriptive bibliography [is] to present all the evidence about a book that can be determined by analytical bibliography applied to a material object” (p. 34). Though age has not withered its infinite variety, the manual was written in an epoch in which photographs were expensive to purchase and even more expensive to print, so that transcriptions were produced by the bibliographer on a manual typewriter and passed on to a highly skilled compositor who set the text in type. Of course a proof of ignorance or mere ignavia in a scholar of the book is the suggestion that description can be avoided by reproducing title-pages: in a file at home I have a collection of bibliographical horrors spawned by that archetypal silliness.

Nonetheless it has to be accepted that, half-a-century after the first appearance of the Principles, it is easier to employ images as a back up to bibliographical analysis and thus that some of the more toilsome conventions can be modified and simplified. Bowers, for instance, insists on the distinction in transcription between ‘long’ and ‘ordinary’ lowecase s: the difference between the two forms can, of course, prove significant in a epoch of transitional graphics such as the Seventeeth and Eighteenth centuries; but in my experience it is a waste of time and effort in descriptions of books of earlier periods, since all the ‘s’, except at the end of a word, are long. In these same fifty years moreover, techniques of analysis and also the ways in which they are reported, have become vastly more sophisticated. Bowers’ orientation inevitably reflected his own critical interests in English Renaissance and Restoration drama with consequent areas of highlight and of shadow. For instance, the manual pays little or no attention to ways of describing illustrations or paper, since the books with which Bowers was familiar offered little to the bibliographer in these respects. Scholars working in other periods and with other sorts of material have therefore learned to adjust the equilibria of the Principles to suit their particular needs without necessarily touching the foundation of the work. On the history of the various printings and issues of the Principles, see Vander Meulen, ‘Revision in Bibliographical Classics’ cit.; on its critical history, Idem, ‘The History and Future of Bowers’ Principles’, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 79 (1985), pp. 197-219; and for an update of the critical discussion relating to the practice of bibliographical description, G. Thomas Tanselle, ‘The Bibliographical Concepts of Issue and State’, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 69 (1975), pp. 17-66; Idem, ‘Title-Page Transcription and Signature Collation Reconsidered’, Studies in Bibliography, vol. 38 (1985), pp. 45-81 , Idem, ‘A Description of Descriptive Bibliography’, Studies in Bibliography, vol. 45 (1992), pp. 1-30; Idem, ‘The Treatment of Typesetting and Presswork in Bibliographical Description’, Studies in Bibliography, vol. 52 (1999), pp. 1-57. An excellent account of Bowers’ life and professional activity, including the genesis of the present volume, appears in G. Thomas Tanselle, The Life and Work of Fredson Bowers (Charlottesville, The Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 1993), also issued in Studies in Bibliography, vol. 46 (1993), and includes a check-list of his publications compiled by Martin C. Battestin. Further information, some of it amusingly anecdotal, can be found in The Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia: The First Fifty Years, ed. by David L. Vander Meulen (Charlottesville, the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 1998), also issued in Studies in Bibliography, vol. 50 (1997), including David L. Vander Meulen, ‘A History of the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia: The First Fifty Years’, pp. 1-81, and G. Thomas Tanselle, ‘A History of Studies in Bibliography: The First Fifty Volumes’, pp. 125-170.

- Philip Gaskell, A New Introduction to Bibliography (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1972, and reprints). Written and presented as a continuation and extension of McKerrow to later periods, this authoritative volume does not have a great deal to say about the activity of bibliography; it is on the other hand excellent on the history of the development of printing methods and technologies, so that thirty years after its original publication it remains a standard reference work. As well as the slightly misleading title, to my mind it has two significant areas of weakness: first, it is heavily orientated towards the English-speaking world; second, the principal focus of bibliographical and critical attention has become the Eighteenth century, so that scholars working with early Continental printing will find that some important developments are not even mentioned (the most striking omission, for instance, is the failure to make mention of the ‘one-pull’ press employed in the Fifteenth century, although this particular technical problem was known to McKerrow through Pollard and is succinctly described in the previous manual). Bowers’ reaction to the Gaskell manual is expressed, sometimes harshly,  in ‘McKerrow revisited’, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 67 (1973), pp. 109-124 (see, for instance, p. 112: “the construction and the methodology, including the whole point of view, are almost diametrically opposite to McKerrow’s and the results are correspondingly affected”). The criticism serves as a useful reminder that, though we tend to see these works as a harmonious group, at the time there were differences of opinion and the odd polemical exchange. On the figure of Philip Gaskell (1926-2001), see David McKitterick in The Book Collector, vol. 60 (2001), pp. 572-574, and James Mosley in La Bibliofilìa, vol. 104 (2002), pp. 97-100. His ideas on textual criticism are brilliantly expressed in From Writer to Reader. Studies in Editorial Method, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1978, in which he publishes extracts from eleven British and one American writers (Harington, Milton, Richardson, Swift, Scott, Tennyson, Dickens, Thackeray, Hawthorne, Hardy, Joyce and Stoppard). Despite the evident prejudice in favour of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century novel evident in the authors chosen, as well as the lack of reference to other literatures, the volume repays careful study, especially the conclusion that “if this book has a message it is that the editor should not base his work on any predetermined rule or theory” (p. viii).

Other manuals of bibliography have been published in the English-speaking world and sometimes come to hand in the maverick lists of titles or on the shelves of a library. Therefore, with a minimum of commentary and in strictly chronological order:

Arundell Esdaile, A Student’s Manual of Bibliography (London, Allen & Unwin, 1931, and reprints). Fourth edition revised by Roy Stokes with title Esdaile’s Manual of Bibliography in 1967, and subsequent reprints. Erudite overview largely overtaken by events. Useful however if read against McKerrow to understand the real measure of the difference. Minora premunt!

E. W. Padwick, Bibliographical method: An Introductory Survey (Cambridge-London, James Clarke, 1969). Intended for librarians, intended to be helpful , and intended..., well, just intended. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions and the fallacy here is to presume that because librarians daily deal with books this means that they are interested or expert in bibliography. Nothing could be less true.

Roy Stokes, The Function of Bibliography (London, André Deutsch, 1969; 2nd ed. Aldershot, Gower, 1982). Illuminating account of the bibliographical scene as it appeared at the time, seen from the outside by a teacher of library studies, not deeply enamoured of Bowers and his school of militant bibliography, but always fair and well versed in the technical aspects of the problem.

D. W. Krummel, Bibliographies: Their Aims and Methods (London-New York, Mansell, 1984). Reasoned and reasonable introduction to bibliography as a discipline by a musicologist well aware of the complexities of printing techniques through the ages.

The final indication in this section regards a work, which is not a manual of bibliography but an intelligent, well-organised overview of textual criticism, which also provides a detailed account of the ‘New Bibliography’ and its historical importance: see David C. Greetham, Textual Scholarship: An Introduction (New York & London, Garland, 1992).