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The Collation

When is an inscription not an inscription?

Two folks identified the key elements of this month’s crocodile mystery in their comments: Misha Teramura correctly noted that the inscription in the middle of the page—“pp. 184-190 refer to the progress of religion westward toward America”—refers to George Herbert’s final poem from The Temple, “The Church Militant.” And David Shaw noted that the other inscriptions—“8652” on the top left and “A176” on the bottom right—look to be an accession number and a shelf mark.

But let’s back up for one moment to understand why I find these marks interesting. The book in question is a first edition of George Herbert’s The Temple (STC 13183). It’s an interesting work, and a popular one in the 17th century. And as you can see from the notations on the front pastedown and the recto of the first free flyleaf, it’s a work that was prized by later collectors.

The pastedown and first free flyleaf of George Herbert's The Temple (STC 13183)

the pastedown and first free flyleaf


Excellent questions! One of the hardest things about cataloging (in my opinion) is the mental anguish of having to leave some things out of the description. If you catalog ten books a month with as much detail as possible rather than fifty books a month with a reasonable amount of detail, you’ll be left with forty books that scholars can’t get access to at all.

We’re gradually putting cataloging policy on Folgerpedia so that researchers will have an idea what they can expect in newly-created records (and in older ones that have been enhanced). In a nutshell, though, we start with the Folger’s mission “to advance understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare’s writings and the culture of the early modern world.” It would be great if we had the resources to note all booksellers’ notations, but we don’t, so catalogers only routinely note the presence of early modern prices (“the culture of the early modern world”). Shakespeare is the exception: an “understanding…of Shakespeare’s writings” includes understanding the market for those writings right up to the present day.

Erin Blake — October 7, 2014


Thanks, Erin. I really wasn’t advocating that these marks have to be included in cataloging—it would slow the process down to a crawl, which wouldn’t serve anyone’s needs. I am interested in the ways it reveals the scholarly and library worlds’ understanding of what marks are significant and for what reasons. And it’s not just catalogers who skip over these marks. My sense, from years of teaching students to examine books closely for signs of user interaction, is that even with those explicit instructions to LOOK AT books, these types of marks often don’t register. What does that tell us about how these books are used today and what uses libraries enable? (I do think posting a cataloging policy on Folgerpedia is a great idea!)

Sarah Werner — October 8, 2014


The one thing we can be certain of is that these pencilled inscriptions weren’t made by Readers!

Richard M. Waugaman — October 7, 2014


Good questions. I have actually had some discussions on this topic recently in regards to whether or not to transcribe such marks/notations by later booksellers, librarians, etc. for the manuscripts we are transcribing and encoding for EMMO. We are experimenting with using a specific tag for added notes like these to differentiate them from the original text of the manuscripts but still include them in case someone is interested in these notations at some point in the future.

Paul Dingman — October 8, 2014


Another reason it’s easy to skip over dealers’ pencil annotations is that they can be, quite literally, cryptic. If you see “bought of Mr. Waller 24 Nov. for 12/” it registers as memorable information ( in case you were wondering). But a few random letters? Or a pattern of lines and dots? The codes that canny antiquarian booksellers use to disguise when they purchased something and for how much register as white noise.

Erin Blake — October 8, 2014


I am for a bibliographic field called Provenance.
Put everything you find about the owners of this copy of the work of author/title/subjects/publishers/places X in that field.

No thinking (the cataloguer’s worst vice – disguised as virtue). Just jot the stuff down there 😉

kneistonie — October 24, 2014


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