Descriptive Bibliography, Then and Now: On the Potential Impact and Relevance of AE’s Bibliographic Database for the Collector of Americana

[This was a promotional piece written for a new online service and monthly magazine for collections of Americana, called the Americana Exchange, founded and funded by a private collector, Bruce McKinney. I had the privilege of meeting him in his home in San Francisco and seeing his wonderful collection. AE is now the Rare Book Hub. I was involved with this San Francisco start-up around the time I moved back to Houston in 2003. This article was for AE Monthly magazine to explain and promote the new service.]

This is an exciting literature to the imaginative man, a great body of writing dealing with new lands and oceans, and strange, uncouth races, with the upthrust of young nations and vital political ideologies, with forces which, literally, altered the economy of the world. Through it runs the bright thread of romance, for where there is conflict and effort and growth, romance is invariably present. . . . When I say that in the treatment of Americana a shift must occur, I mean that emphasis must be removed from this minutely exact transcription and elaborate physical description of the book and placed upon a commentary resulting from research into textual history and relationships. Lawrence C. Wroth, on standards for bibliographic description for Americana, 1946.

In 1946, the Librarian of the John Carter Brown Library, Lawrence C. Wroth, also a historian and author, was invited to participate in an honorary lecture series on standards in bibliographic description. Although the organizers of the series had intended for each contributor to provide a polite overview of the history and high points of bibliographic description and scholarship in their respective fields, and despite the fact that the resulting volume of essays[1] was meant to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of R. B. McKerrow’s Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students, Wroth broke from tradition and argued that the current practices and emphasis of bibliographic scholarship, those advanced by McKerrow, were misguided—even inappropriate for his field, Americana.

Wroth argued that the preoccupations and “exhaustive procedures” of bibliographers with “minor textual differences” and detailed physical analysis—the painstaking effort “transcribing a title in such a manner as to show the several type faces employed by its printer; by recording and describing in the transcription every rule, double rule, printer’s ornament, or border . . . and by making a minute analysis of signatures, headlines, and catchwords, in order to discover, among other things, how many presses were employed in the printing and what pages were printed at the same time from the same form”[2]—are missing the point:

There are students who record the most careful and intensive studies of the physical characteristics of the book they describe and leave it at that, saying, in effect, that the literary historian must take it from there. I am convinced that this is not the correct procedure in the case of Americana, nor am I sure for books of any kind.”[3] . . . . Better to use that physical effort and cerebration in the study of the history and the significance of the text in relation to subject and to other texts.[4]

In fact, Wroth proposed that Americana, while perhaps not requiring its own bibliographic standard, would greatly benefit from a shift in emphasis from the elaboration of the physical form of the book to “a consideration of its meaning in relation to time in subject” which he felt had been neglected by the discipline of bibliography for 30 years or more. Moreover, he felt that Americana wasn’t going to benefit from these techniques, as might a work of literature, because Americana tends to be pragmatic and not all that subtle,[5] such that the discovery of slightly variant copies would make little difference.

Wroth’s ideas on bibliography were motivated by three assumptions: 1. that the purpose of bibliography is to “illuminate the life of a period, or of a place in time” (hence a preference for chronological arrangement); 2. that the study of history, and especially Americana, because it is primarily concerned with events, does not benefit from a detailed analysis of the physical book (“It has been my experience that in the treatment of Americana, the reward of this procedure seldom compensates for the pains required to carry it through”), and 3. that it is the bibliographer’s responsibility to assess and comment upon the significance of the work. His model for what bibliography should be was Henry Harisse’s Bibliotheca Americana Vetustissima (1866, known as the B.A.V.), because Harisse’s work consists of a chronological arrangement, description, and annotations providing the historical context.

Wide acceptance in academic circles of Fredson T. Bowers’ Principles of Bibliographic Description in 1949 further advanced the tradition of analytical bibliography that Wroth opposed.

There were other dissenting voices to this seemingly dispassionate, technical treatment of book as object, and not solely from within the field of Americana. G. Thomas Tanselle’s outstanding article, “A Description of Descriptive Bibliography” (1992)[6], demonstrated that the nature and purpose of descriptive bibliography had been the subject of a long ranging debate. Wroth was one of many others—including two presidents of the Biographical Society of London, twenty years apart—who complained in public addresses of the exaggerated emphasis on physical description, criticized as a soulless, sterile, mechanical activity, a sign of the bibliographer’s unwillingness to exercise judgement; and, because of the obscure terminology employed, a form of dilettantism which made bibliography meaningless to the average person. One president, Geoffrey Keynes, called Bowers’s book a “shadow which seems in recent years to have descended over our amiable discipline.”[7]

Academic guides on bibliography, including A New Introduction to Bibliography by Philip Gaskell, required in many English literature and library science graduate school courses, spend several hundred pages dealing with the history of printing—typography, paper, format and collation—as preparation for the student to perform bibliographic description as it is practiced today: a detailed physical description of the book, consisting of two parts, the first of which is the “quasi-facsimile,” the practice of transcribing a title page in such great detail as to capture typographical variations sufficient to “distinguish one setting of a title-page from another.”[8] The second part is the description of the format and collation (register of signatures), referred to as “the formula.” These explain in symbolic shorthand how the book is put together, including an accounting of all the leaves and gatherings. Details may be given on type and paper, variant impressions, issues, and states, and the binding. Commenting on the author’s intent, historical context, or contents, however, falls outside the standard.

Two types of scholarly pursuits have come to rely upon this type of bibliography. One is a branch of literary criticism called “textual criticism,” in which the slightest textual variation between copies is studied to reveal something significant about the author’s intent. Many of the most influential and prolific bibliographers of this century—those who had the greatest influence on the standard, such as W. W. Greg, R.B. McKerrow and Philip Gaskell—were interested in resolving textual problems in literature through a study of variant copies of texts. The other is a relatively new type of history practiced by historians of the book (mainly associated with Departments of English) who use physical evidence to reveal something about the production and transmission of texts in society. Indeed, what has come to define the field of bibliography has limited appeal for most collectors of Americana; although of course, there have been instances where forgeries were exposed through a close analysis of ink and paper.

What Collectors of Americana Need to Know. For collectors of rare books, a very basic understanding of physical description and traditional bibliographic terminology is important, simply in order to understand dealer catalogs and bibliographies where these conventions are employed. Terry Belanger, the head of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, explains that the concepts of “edition, impression, issue, and state” are “important to the book collector because they help describe the priority of publication. Collectors tend to desire the earliest form in which the book was published, preferring the uncorrected state of the first issue of the first impression of the first edition to all other ones.”[9]

There are essentially three types of traditional bibliographies commonly used by book collectors: checklists, or selective bibliographies (i.e., someone’s opinion of what is important to collect); library catalogs or catalogs of important collections; and exhaustive bibliographies, sometimes called enumerative bibliographies, where the objective is to identify what is there to be collected or studied. Depending on the motivations of the bibliographer, some will be annotated, but many early bibliographies in any field are simply trying to identify what is out there, important or trivial, and where these copies may be located. In the field of Americana, Joseph Sabin’s A Dictionary of Books Relating to Americana, from its Discovery to the Present Time (1868-1936) and Charles Evans’ American Bibliography: A Chronological Dictionary of All Books, Pamphlets and Periodical Publications Printed in the United States of America from the Genesis of Printing in 1639 Down to and Including the Year 1800 (1903-1959) represent this type of bibliography.

Evans is considered “The most important general list of early American publications” (Balay), while Sabin is comprised of Americana printed in the Americas and elsewhere, and extends beyond 1800. Another important and recently published bibliography, European Americana: A Chronological Guide to Works Printed in Europe Relating to the Americas, 1493-1776, is a 6-volume set completed by the John Carter Library Brown at Brown University. Like the English Short Title Catalog (STC), Evans and Sabin compiled their monumental enumerative bibliographies to serve in part as finding aids for those who wished to perform a more detailed study, and library locations are given where possible (and of course, this helps to verify that the title actually exists).

Compiled with collectors in mind, a bibliography of a completely different sort is Howes’s U.S.IANA. A Selective Bibliography in Which are Described 11,620 Uncommon and Significant Books Relating to the Continental Portion of the United States which offers a selection of uncommon and important books relating to the continental US. Brief comments regarding significance along with average sales values are provided.

The E.D. Church Library: A Catalog of Books Relating to the Discovery and Early History of North and South America, compiled by George Watson Cole, contains important historical and bibliographical annotations, but it includes only 1,385 entries of books about America. Other important catalogs on Americana exist, but not everything in a library or personal collection should be judged as “important.” In fact, with many collections, the collection as a whole may be worth more than the sum of its parts. Another often cited private collection is The Celebrated Collection of Americana Formed by the Late Thomas Winthrop Streeter.

Generally, the more selective the bibliography, the more generous the commentary. Both types of bibliography are used by collectors in different ways: enumerative lists let you survey the field, and know what is out there to be collected; while selective lists and to some extent, library catalogs, are an indication of what others view as being valuable and important. Some will be arranged alphabetically for quick look-up, some chronologically for greater historical emphasis.

The availability of computer-generated listings of titles is bound to have an impact on the present and future generation of bibliographers and bibliophiles. Today, networked union catalogs like OCLC and RLIN, representing the bibliographic records of the holdings of member libraries, permit the instantaneous creation of virtually exhaustive bibliographies in any given field or subject area.[10] The largest union catalog of MARC (machine-readable cataloging) records, OCLC, consists of the bibliographic records of the holdings of 41,000 libraries in 82 countries and territories around the world. OCLC has been available to research librarians since the early 70’s, and many libraries allow patron access to OCLC terminals through a public interface, WorldCat. (Limited access to OCLC WorldCat is available through the ABAA website, but it restricts searching by requiring title or ISBN.)

These computer-generated listings (dare we call these “bibliographies?”) give you, in essence, the information that used to be found on library catalog cards, plus holdings information (e.g., where the book resides). For rare books cataloging, the physical description is often quite detailed, as prescribed by another set of descriptive bibliographic standards, the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, 2nd edition, supplemented a Bibliographic Description of Rare Books. For those of you wishing to create traditional library cards for your private collections, AACR2 will show you how to do it right.

While cataloging records often include detailed notes and references to published descriptions in standard bibliographies and reference books, their form and rules reflect a different function, namely, providing access to the book through a card catalog. For example, the rules for transcription of the title page according to AACR2 do not require, or even strive for, quasi-facsimile. Rather, AACR2 specifies a style of capitalization that deviates both from the “book title capitalization” and from the capitalization found in the book itself. The rational for this may have been to improve efficiency in cataloging, that shifting to upper case for “important words” in the title took too long.[11] Along the same vein, Tanselle has complained[12] that the OCLC database produces records that are not sufficiently detailed for users to differentiate among issues and impressions, only different editions, and therefore what appears as the record for a book is really something like an ideal copy.[13] Nevertheless, for the purpose of identification (treat it like an enumerative bibliography), the level of physical description available through OCLC is more than adequate, and it affords users the ability to search the catalogs of thousands of libraries in many ways, including by date, title, and keyword.

As “identification,” “arrangement,” and even “physical description”—the traditional tasks of the bibliographer—can be automated through greater access to online bibliographic databases such as OCLC, and more recently, the AE online database, we can to obtain a more complete picture of what was published in any given year, location, and subject area. It seems a natural progression to move from physical description to a form of historical bibliography, or a practice which Wroth described, i.e., “seeking in our analysis of books for their significance in relation to life we make the most satisfactory approach to the hurly-burly, the disorder, the vitality, and the profound meaning of the field of letters we call Americana.”[14]

Why traditional bibliographies still matter in the field of Americana. Even in Special Collections libraries, OCLC has not supplanted the need for standard bibliographies and descriptive catalogs, which serve as common points of reference among book dealers and collectors in any given field. Dealers provide citations at the end of their catalog descriptions, citing the point of entry in these works by abbreviation and entry number.

To those unfamiliar with these sources, or for those who do not have access to them, the citations can be confusing, and even somewhat misleading. People tend to think that the more citations a book has, the more significant it must be. (Dealers will sometimes suggest that because it is not found in a reference work that the item must be “rare.”) Those who have access to bibliographies and know how to make use of them, know that they are a wonderful resource that allow you to buy books more wisely and profitably.

One way that bibliographies are used is to positively identify a particular work. They are also there to provide readers with an “objective” (that is, other than what a dealer may say about it) description of a work’s historical and literary significance—though of course, this presupposes buyers have access to these sometimes hard to find bibliographies, which collectors often do not.

Instead of depending on dealer catalog descriptions or making judgments about value or merit based on the number of citations a book may possess, collectors should consult these sources directly (as they can on the AE database for most of the authoritative traditional bibliographic sources mentioned in this article) and determine if this title is worthwhile. Just because it appears in a bibliography doesn’t make it important. In any collecting area, knowing which bibliographies are selective and authoritative is crucial if you are buying books for investment rather than for strictly personal reasons.[15] You can also obtain an overview of “what all is out there” in a particular field or collecting area, rather than forming an impression based on what is included in dealer catalogs and letting the market determine your collection development priorities.

A bibliography is a kind of mosaic, helping us to piece together the history and culture of a given place and time. AE is working to achieve this ideal by going beyond physical description to incorporate bio-bibliographical information (author’s race and gender) and rich annotations based on a multitude of sources. AE will bring to you the most important bibliographies in the field of Americana, combined with annotations from other authoritative sources added by our team of expert bibliographers. It will contain records bearing a more accurate transcription of titles than OCLC, and will allow searching by popular collecting subject areas. It will allow searching on the sources of citations found in dealer catalogs and by subject, which is not possible in OCLC.

Through the Americana Exchange platform, it is possible for the casual collector to access the same bibliographic tools found in special collections libraries and used by professionals for collection development, description and evaluation. With this new bibliographic resource, we now have the ability to construct a more complete picture of the intellectual and social history of the American people as never before. This monumental undertaking by Bruce McKinney, President of the Americana Exchange, to provide online access to a multitude of annotated bibliographic records from diverse sources, could provide the basis for the transformation of the discipline of bibliography in Americana which Wroth anticipated.


[1] Lawrence C. Wroth, “Early Americana,” in Standards of Bibliographic Description. The Rosenbach Fellowship in Bibliography. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1949, p. 110.

[2] Wroth, p. 119.

[3] Wroth, p. 105.

[4] Wroth, p. 119.

[5] “The normal work of Americana . . . is an objective work, brought into being through the impact upon the author of some event or movement or set of circumstances outside himself. In many instances the book so produced becomes an agency which bears its part in the further development of that movement, or becomes an element integrated with the history of an event it treats. The relationship of the book to events or to other books treating directly or inferentially the same subject becomes a matter of interest to the historian, and the bibliographer with a sensitive feeling for these relationships will endeavor to answer for himself and his readers certain questions about the book he is describing. . . .”  Wroth, pp. 111-112.

[6] G. Thomas Tanselle, “A Description of Descriptive Bibliography,” Studies in Bibliography, Volume 45, 1992, pp. 1-30;

[7] p.14.

[8] Philip Gaskell, A New Introduction to Bibliography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972, p. 322.

[9] He defines these terms accordingly: 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.. . .”An issue is that part of an edition offered for sale at one time, or as a consciously planned unit.” And, lastly, ”State refers to the minor differences in the printed text between one copy and other of the same book.” For those who would like examples of these, Mr. Belanger’s article is available at

[10] Not a true subject search: OCLC does not permit searching on subject headings, only by keyword.

[11] According to Karen Muller, Reference Librarian for the American Library Association library, this type of capitalization became the de facto standard with the development of the LC card program in 1901, but no one seems to know why the practice of permitting only proper names to be capitalized, or “sentence capitalization,” for book titles, won out over competing practices.

[12] G. Thomas Tanselle, “Concept of an ‘Ideal Copy’” Studies in Bibliography, pp. 18-53, Vol 33, 1980, p. 49.

[13] To prevent unnecessary duplication, member libraries are encouraged to attach their holdings information to an existing record (that is, if a good match exists), while being able to download and customize their record locally. A librarian might indicate, for example, that their copy is “an association copy,” is “missing its title page,” has a unique binding, is “printed on wallpaper,” and so forth, but this information resides locally.

[14] Wroth, pp. 112-113.

[15] A good source for learning about bibliographies is the American Library Association’s comprehensive Guide to Reference Books (Balay, 11th edition). While many bibliographies of bibliographies have been published, one advantage of the ALA’s Guide—often referred to as “Balay”—is that it is available at almost every library in the country, while other, more specialized reference works require access to a large reference or research library. Balay is an excellent starting point for beginning book collectors to learn what bibliographies and other resources are available in any collecting area. Another good source, though less common than Balay, is Theodore Besterman’s five volume A World Bibliography of Bibliographies, which lists over 100,000 published bibliographies.