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Workshop on Descriptive Bibliography

By Matt Hussey

June 08, 2016

At the end of April, the Print Culture program, along with Special Collections at the Bennett Library, hosted a three-day workshop on descriptive bibliography, taught by David Gants from Florida State University. Fourteen faculty and graduate students from the English Department and one intrepid librarian first bulked up by reading several hundred pages of Phillip Gaskell’s A New Introduction to Bibliography plus some bonus Thomas Tanselle and incredibly handy new work by David Gants’ himself. The workshop plunged right into the hands-on wok with dozens of rare books from Special Collections, ranging in date from the sixteenth through the early twentieth centuries. David introduced the history of descriptive bibliography, stretching from Bradshaw through Greg, Bowers, and Tanselle. 

Then, we turned to the hands-on investigation. We first grappled with the actual physical structure of the books: paper, gatherings, signatures. This meant some creative origami (duodecimo in sixes? what?) as well as staring deep into the gutters, counting pages, scrutinizing chainlines and watermarks, and ruffling deckles.  By the day’s end, we had written our statements of format and collation for two books apiece. 

Our second day began with a useful workshop of our statements of format and collation, and these statements were as compressed and mathematical in their beauty as Gödel's completeness theorem. Michelle Levy had an evocative swapped-out gathering that revealed a complex set of literary and publication decisions. Mike Everton had a multiply signed John Adams freakshow. 

From format and collation, we took up signing and pagination: once more unto the breach! Again, we carefully wended our way through the old books and David taught us how to denote the presence, absence, and systems of page numbers. All the while we came across some weird cool things in our books.

On our third and final day, we worked through the statements of pagination, before taking up the crucial practical and theoretical ideas of edition, issue, impression and state and the differences in meanings for these terms in the hand-press, machine-press, and digital eras. This also led to a lively discussion of  ‘ideal copy’, a concept that hovers at the edge of the utterly material and the ineffably metaphysical, like the workshop itself, where the nitty-gritty details of physical books open up literary histories, textual ideals, and new forms of critique. 

And this is what a sixteenth-century beaver looked like:

Thanks to the Department of English, Special Collections, and FASS for making this possible. 

Matthew T. Hussey studies book history and intellectual culture of Anglo-Saxon England with a focus on Anglo-Latin and Old English literature and their manuscript contexts. He has published on Beowulf, the Exeter Book, habitus and paleography and is working on a book on 'scenes of reading' in Anglo-Saxon manuscriptsHe has recently published a volume of codicological descriptions of manuscripts from early medieval Exeter. He is particularly interested in the materiality of the book and its meanings in the age of digitization. He is also the associate editor of the ongoing 'Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts in Microfiche Facsimile' series.