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The Collation

Two disciplines separated by a common language

I should have seen it coming when the Art History professor and the English professor started talking with each other about “print culture” (names omitted to protect reputations). It soon became clear that one had been talking about the circulation of printed pictures, the other had been talking about the circulation of printed words, and neither wanted to let on that they hadn’t been talking about both all along. Full disclosure: when I first came to the library world from the art world, I had no idea that familiar picture-printing terms have different and sometimes contradictory meanings in word-printing. This post is for anyone else who didn’t know that they didn’t know this.

  1. On the assumption that most Collation readers are already familiar with the the book-world meanings of the terms, and because this post is overdue, I’m only illustrating the picture-world meanings.
  2. Philip Gaskell describes an edition as “all the copies of a book printed at any time (or times) from substantially the same setting of type, and includes all the various impressions, issues, and states which may have derived from that setting.” He goes on to describe “substantially the same setting” as meaning, roughly, that less than half the type has been reset. (Gaskell, A New Introduction to Bibliography, Second Impression, Oak Knoll Press, 2006, p.313.
  3. Again, here’s Gaskell for more nuanced definitions of impression—“all the copies of an edition printed at any one time” (p.314) which, in the hand-press period, essentially is the same as an edition—and state—“all other variants from the basic form of the ideal copy” (p.315) including stop-press corrections, inserting or removing preliminaries, adding errata leaves, inserting or removing text during the process of printing.
  4. The standard manual for cataloging rare materials (commonly known as “DCRM(B)”) provides the following definition of plate: “A leaf that is chiefly or entirely non-letterpress, or a folded leaf of any kind, inserted with letterpress gatherings of text. A plate usually contains illustrative matter, with or without accompanying text, but may contain only text, e.g., an engraved title page or a folded letterpress table.” (Association of College and Research Libraries, Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials: Books Washington (DC: Cataloging Distribution Services, 2007), p. 203.


With regard to the bibliographical term “state,” it’s critical to also include the last phrase of Gaskell’s paragraph on the subject (p. 316):

“… differences of state are generally the attributes of individual formes, or sometimes of individual sheets.”

Although it’s all too common to find copies described as being of a certain state, it’s misleading to do so. This is especially the case when an impression has multiple stop-press corrections during the print run, whether in the same forme or in different formes, so any given copy will exhibit a combination of states.

I’d go a little further than Gaskell, and omit reference to individual sheets – a sheet is almost always printed from at least two formes, and if there are variants in both formes, it makes more sense to specify the states of each forme separately, and then describe the combinations of states that are found in various copies of the sheet. This can perhaps be useful in establishing the order of printing, though such evidence can be tricky to evaluate.

John Lancaster — April 30, 2013

Thanks, Erin, for another post that helps expose some of the misconceptions and fuzzy thinking about book history. You provide an excellent reminder of the need to be precise about our use of terms that at least aim for some technical precision. I fear, though, that there’s some inevitable tension between the goal of technical precision and the messiness of practice in the book trade. I remember Peter Blayney cautioning in his Folger Institute course years ago that we really didn’t have a handle on distinctions among edition, issue, and state. Didn’t the fluidity and ad hoc practices of the printing house work against the terminological precision we would all like to impose? Nevertheless, and again, you remind us of the need to query for ourselves our own understandings of these issues–and to articulate our own usages and the complicating factors we find in our research.

Kathleen Lynch — April 30, 2013

Super interesting piece by @eblakedc about the differences between English and art historians’ jargon

@beccarosen — April 30, 2013

In response to both John Lancaster and Kathleen Lynch, I would agree that it’s true that bibliographers continue to quibble over the precise usage of their terms (and I would agree that Gaskell is sometimes more fixed than the fluidities of early printing practice). But I think Erin’s main point is larger than that: there is a real difference between how book historians and art historians talk about their objects. The quibbling that bibliographers do over printing practices isn’t going to affect the distances between the two groups if we don’t understand the differences between our training and our vocabulary.

Sarah Werner — May 1, 2013

Great article! In regards to the section (and earlier linked post) on woodcuts and engravings, and to make things a bit more confusing, it seems worthwhile to point out that wood engravings are, like woodcuts, a type of relief print. While metal engravings (and etchings) are intaglio prints. The terms “engraving” and “cut” have more to do with (rather fuzzy) differences in how the marks in the plate/block are made, as opposed to how they are printed.

Aaron Cohick — May 1, 2013

Good point. I deliberately restricted the earlier post on woodcuts and [metal] engravings to the 16th and 17th century for precisely that reason! Wood engravings are printed in relief. From the late 18th century until the 1830s, they usually read quite clearly as white lines cut out of a black background. See, for example, (it’s most obvious if you zoom in on a dark area). Later 19th-century wood engravings often convincingly imitate etchings, confusing things even more.

The main technical difference between a woodcut and a wood engraving is that woodcuts are made on the softer “plank” side of a chunk of slow-growing hardwood, while wood engravings are made on the much harder (and smaller) *end* of a chunk of slow-growing hardwood (the ends are bolted or glued together if a surface bigger than three inches or so is needed).

Erin Blake — May 3, 2013

States & plates & copies, oh my! @FolgerLibrary sheds light on print culture’s enigmatic terminology HT @SILibraries

@TavBooks — May 2, 2013

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