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The Collation

The books on our shelf

Headers on blogs are sometimes just pretty pictures, just as sometimes books sitting on a shelf are just books sitting there. In this case, however, the books sitting on the shelf in our header image are not only pretty, but revealing!

Books in the vault, Deck C, Folger Shakespeare Library, 9/11/09

The picture that is the basis for The Collation‘s header was taken by Erica Abbey, one of the Folger’s photographers, in our Deck C rare materials vault on September 11, 2009.

  1. The STC collection is, as you might imagine, made up of books that are in Pollard and Redgrave’s A short-title catalogue of books printed in England, Scotland and Ireland, and of English books printed abroad 1475-1640. The fact that the Folger houses them separately goes some way towards indicating the remarkable influence of Edward Arber’s transcription of the Stationers’ Register (which only goes up to 1640) and the STC itself on the study of early modern British works.
  2. A side note: if you are doing research on books in this period, especially non-Anglophone ones, you will find that the place names are often in Latin. A handy resource from the Bibliographic Standards Committee of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries will help you identify those locations in English: see the RBMS/BSC Latin Place Names File.
  3. I’m not sure why the same words that are used to refer to format in hand-press era books became the words to indicate spine height in machine-press era books. When used in shelving in libraries, “quarto” means “30 cm or shorter and 23 cm or narrower,” “folio” means “more than 30 cm tall or more than 23 cm wide,” and “broadside” means “shelved flat, any size.” (Although earlier flat acquisitions were called broadsides, they are now identified as flats.)


One of the things I like about shelving by accession number in closed stacks is that it seems more fair: staff with vault access don’t have an advantage over everyone else, since browsing the shelves won’t help. Everyone has to “browse” virtually, using access points in the record (which also seems more fair to the material: it doesn’t have to be pigeonholed into a single category for shelving purposes. Hypothetical example: is a book about the University of Oxford during the English Civil War more about the university, or more about the Civil War?)

Erin Blake — November 14, 2011

I love that point! One of the boons of closed stacks can be that it eliminates all that weird context insistence. Browsing virtually means that many more books can be adjacent to a single item than would be physically possible.

Sarah Werner — November 14, 2011

I was about to object to Erin’s comment, since browsing the shelves would make it so easy to identify, say, books with vellum bindings on which the title has been written — but, I see that your fabulous Folger catalogers even have a standard note for “ms. spine title”! (Of course, closed stacks only work this way when the catalog is so thorough.)

This is an excellent reminder that the Folger has so, so much more than Shakespeare — of the books in this photo, two stand out to me, for different reasons: the Hospinian seems designed as a two-for-one deal by the bookshop (from the imprints, they were both published in the same year by the same person); even better is the volume in which two printed commonplace books (the Gellius and the Erasmus) have been bound together, presumably by the early owner, since they were published in different years in different places. And the catalog record says there are “early manuscript notes”! So I’ll be adding that to my list for my next visit to the Folger.

Adam G. Hooks — November 15, 2011

Fabulous entry, Sarah! You even direct readers to something I’ve always considered a hidden cataloging tool: the RBMS/BSC Latin place names file!

A couple of notes. First is that a great many libraries have moved to (or never switched from) shelving their closed collections in order of accession. The primary purpose of classification (ordering materials according to their content, as do the Dewey and Library of Congress classification systems) is to aid in browsing, which of course has no meaning for closed stacks. (Some places were a little too flippant in their nomenclature for my sensibilities; when I was a Beinecke cataloger, I agitated against the entrenched convention of calling this consecutive shelving system “idiot numbers.”)

As for the confusing double use of bibliographic terms (folio, quarto, &c.) to indicate 1) within the bibliographic record its imposition, and 2) in the shelfmark its size, initial blame falls on the 19c publishers who co-opted those terms to indicate size alone. Too bad librarians followed suit. Something already done in off-site storage facilities, and may possibly be gradually adopted in on-site shelving, is finer grades of delineation based on size. The Folger is normal in designating three basic sizes: normal, large, and flat. But we could save a lot more shelving space if we had, say, five or six size categories. Not that I’m necessarily recommending this …

Deborah J. Leslie — November 15, 2011