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The Collation

Welcome to The Collation

For many people, the copier is probably the first place they first encounter the idea of collating. Do you want the copier to collate your 50 copies of that 3-page document? Or do you want to turn your 3 piles of 50 pages into 50 piles of 3 pages by hand? That might be the most common usage, but it’s not why we wanted to call this new publication The Collation. As you’ll see, collation is a word gathering together rich associations, many of which are of particular relevance to scholars at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

For editors and textual scholars, collation refers to an intricate method of comparing copies of texts, looking for moments where the text differs. Sometimes this means looking at multiple copies of the same text. Especially in the early modern period, where textual variants are common in printed works because the press could be stopped at any point to make changes, one work–say, the 1623 edition of Shakespeare’s plays, commonly known as the First Folio–could exist in many different states. By comparing different copies of the same text, scholars can learn not only what the range of variants are, but maybe something about the ways in which a book was printed. It was for these reasons that Charlton Hinman developed what we now refer to as the Hinman Collator:

The Hinman Collator

Named after Shakespeare scholar and bibliographer Charlton Hinman, the machine worked along the same principles established in astronomy with the blink comparator: by placing images in the two holders (whether photographs of stars or copies of a page in the First Folio) so that they are aligned when you look through the eyepiece, and then using strobe lights to rapidly alternate between views of the two, any differences will jump out at the viewer. The Hinman Collator rapidly increased the rate at which two texts could be compared. The manual method that preceded Hinman’s mechanical collator consisted of placing one finger on each text and looking back and forth between them. This so-called “Wimbledon method” was not only slow, but potentially inaccurate: the temptation to read the texts you were comparing, rather than look at them inevitably meant that some differences wouldn’t register. With his mechanical collator and the large collection of First Folios at the Folger, Hinman was able to compare each page–indeed, each impression of inked type–of 55 copies, leading to his monumental work exploring the process by which Shakespeare’s collected plays were printed, Printing and Proof-reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare (1963). The Library still has a working Hinman Collator, though it’s not used often; the Library also has one of the smaller collators developed since then, Carter Hailey’s Comet collator. (You can see both in the Exhibition Hall as part of “Fame, Fortune, & Theft: The Shakespeare First Folio” through September 3rd.)

Carter Hailey’s Comet Portable Optical Collator

While mechanical collators are used to compare copies of the same text, collation can also refer to the process of establishing the variants from one edition to the next. This is the work that editors do when preparing scholarly editions: they gather earlier editions of a text and note the places where the text is changed (whether through printing house practices or editorial intervention). It’s what William Thynne means when he refers to “The contrarietees and alteracions founde by collacion of the one [imprinte] with the other” in the dedication to his 1532 edition  of Chaucer’s Works, a usage that the OED cites as one of the earliest in this sense. And it’s what you see when you pick up the Arden3 edition of As You Like It and look at the bottom of the page to see “230 forth such] F2; forth F; such Douai ms, Capell“, evidence that Juliet Dusinberre, the play’s editor, has chosen the reading “It may well be called Jove’s tree when it drops forth such fruit” (3.2.229-30) which is found in the Second Folio text, while the First Folio has only “forth” and the late 17th manuscript of the play in Douai has only “such”, which is also the reading adopted by Edward Capell in his 1767 edition.

Textual scholars might be primarily interested in collation as a way of establishing the text, but collation can also be focused on the physical aspects of a book. For binders, collating a book means making sure that the gatherings are in the correct order. For most early modern books, the gatherings are labeled in some sort of fairly obvious progression: A, B, C, D, E etc. Even so, it would be helpful to know the end point (did you forget to incorporate the R gathering, or does this book end with the Q gathering?). And the preliminary matter (dedications, epistles, frontispieces, title pages) is often not marked in alphabetical sequence but in a series of symbols (*, ¶, †). Sometimes a work will include the register in the back of the book as a guide to the binder. Here, after the colophon in this 1491 Augustine, the register tells the binder that the gatherings run a through r:

The colophon from a 1491 edition of Augustine

Since binders and printers worked separately in the early modern period, printing information about registers can ensure that the book is collated in the right order.

For bibliographers and catalogers, a book’s collation is a formulaic description of the physical book, including information about its format, the order of its gatherings (the register), and the number of leaves. It’s useful information in terms of understanding what you’re looking at. Is this copy missing leaves? Is this the state that includes the second variant on the title page? A collation formula can help you know what you’re going to see before you even look at a book.

As you can see from the Augustine, the register for the book is embedded in its collational formula:

4°: []2, a-q8, r4 (n2 unsigned).

In less oblique language, this describes the book as being in a quarto format (4°), as starting with two blank leaves ([]2) followed by 16 gatherings (because, of course, j was not used) labeled alphabetically a through q with each gathering consisting of 8 leaves (a-q8), followed by a gathering labeled r consisting of 4 leaves (r4), with the additional information that the second leaf in the n gathering does not have a signature mark on it (n2 unsigned). That’s pretty straightforward, but other collational formulas can be more complex:

2°: πA⁶(πA1+1, πA5+1.2), A-2B6, 2C2, a-g6, χ2g8, h-v6, x4, “gg3.4″(±”gg3”), ¶-2¶6, 3¶1, 2a-2f6, 2g2, “Gg6“, 2h6, 2k-3b6.

What book is that, you ask? It’s nothing less than Henry Clay Folger’s prize possession: the First Folio.

While all these senses of collation refer to some aspect of book scholarship, there is one other sense of the word that connects to scholarly life at the Folger: that of a light meal. Whether one wants to invoke this sense of collation in its religious connotation of a meeting of monks over prayer or in a more secular sense of a rejuvenating fellowship over food, the notion of gathering and companionship is central to its meaning. As anyone who has been a researcher at the Folger knows, the daily tradition of 3:00 tea is a cherished one. It’s not only that a jolt of caffeine and sugar can help fortify the last hour of scholarship, but the conversations that happen in the tea room. Tea is a time for chatting and sharing, for meeting new ideas and brainstorming about discoveries in the vaults.

tea caddy with depiction of David Garrick

These characteristics of collation provide the model of blending scholarship and fellowship that we hope to achieve in our new blog. The Collation will be a space to share the research being done at the Library, a space that aims to be both a virtual Hinman Collator enabling the close study of physical artifacts and a virtual Tea Room providing sustenance and lively discussion. We’ll be posting twice a week, featuring items from the collections, research being done by staff and readers, and providing glimpses into our programs. We look forward to sharing this gathering with you and to our future conversations.

Welcome to The Collation.


I’ve always been fascinated by the Hinman Collator, since it shows – in a way no picture of a scholar at work ever could – the extraordinary lengths to which scholars have gone to understand the books they study. The Hinman Collator, as well as the Lindstrand Comparator and Hailey’s Comet, are excellent examples of machines that embody a way of working and thinking. I remember an early modern image that depicts a scholar sitting at a giant rotating “reading wheel”: the mechanical device allows the reader to jump, physically, from one book to the next and so make connections between them.

You might say that the history of such devices is also a history of the humanities, since the humanities themselves evolved through the widespread and systematic comparisons of archival materials. I think today we are more likely to associate such projects with computer analysis, since computers now make comparisons at a scale that would exhaust any individual. But the scholarly practice of collation, and the way of thinking that goes with it, is a longstanding one. Indeed, if you think of scholarship as a process of making systematic comparisons, you realize that textual analysis using computers is really a *late* technological extension of philological practices that were perfected well before the arrival of etched silicon wafers. The humanities were digital well before there was anything like a computer.

Michael Witmore — August 18, 2011

See for the “reading wheel” image Mike mentions, in Agostino Ramelli, Le Diverse et artificiose machine, Paris, 1588 page 317 (alas, the scholar isn’t following the text with his finger, so there isn’t a “digital” pun to be made).

Erin Blake — August 18, 2011

Congrats on the new blog! In support of what you say, Michael, I’ve always thought it was no coincidence that the University of Virginia (where I earned my doctorate) was first a leader in bibliography and textual studies and then also a leader in humanities computing / digital humanities. Both deal with the book as a material object, and both are always willing to use whatever contrivance can be contrived in furtherance of understanding.

Amanda French — August 18, 2011

Nice blog, Sarah.

For the persnickety among us, please note that the collational formula for the Augustine is not given according to current practice.

Deborah J. Leslie — August 19, 2011

Thanks for the input, Deborah. What would it look like according to current practice for this book? Or where could folks go to see the current guidelines for catalogers?

Sarah Werner — August 19, 2011

What a wonderful idea! I’ve long thought it would be useful to have some sort of listserv for Readers, to share questions and observations. Since each Reader is often looking for something specific and has only limited time to examine the Folger’s vast collection, giving the rest of us a heads up would facilitate helping each other out when we can. Perhaps this blog can serve that purpose.

Richard M. Waugaman, M.D. — August 19, 2011

Thanks for the suggestion. We’ll be exploring the different ways in which we can use this space and will keep the idea of a forum in mind!

Sarah Werner — August 20, 2011

I would just like to point out that I am responsible for that red headrest pad being placed on the Hinman. Originally the headrest was merely a flat plastic rectangle. Years ago (very late 1970s or very early 1980s?) I collated on the Hinman from opening to closing time one day and on the next day I had what appeared to be a permanent red rectangle imprinted in my forehead. Before the second day was out the red pad on the headrest had appeared, thanks to the conservation department. I believe it has been there ever since. Those of us who collate with heavy heads are very grateful.

William Proctor Williams — August 22, 2011

[…] wrote the introductory post on the word “collation” as well as a later post about my tweeting the @FolgerResearch #wunderkammer series. There are also […]

why blog once when you can blog twice or even thrice? » Sarah Werner — August 29, 2011

Thank you for this most helpful blog. I’m teaching a new graduate class this Fall called “Books as Things” (it’s our old “Research Methods” class, amped up with a little Thing Theory and Book Arts), and will be sending students here (and visiting frequently myself) for updates and refreshers.

Sujata Iyengar — September 3, 2011