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Understanding a rare book catalogue record

Rare book catalogue records use specialised symbols, abbreviations, and terms to provide detailed information about our specific copy.  Here are some tips for interpreting the catalogue records in the Classic Catalogue.

[Square brackets] indicate that information is supplied by the cataloguer, rather than transcribed directly from the book. In the page numbering, square brackets indicate un-numbered pages.

[sic] is a Latin term meaning “thus” or “in this way.” It is used to indicate that a typo or other error is copied directly from the book, not made by the cataloguer.

Uniform Title. For works whose titles may have changed across multiple editions (for example, when translated into different languages), a Uniform Title provides access to all of the versions of a work under a single heading.

Imprint. Where, by whom, and when a book was published or printed.  There are some standard abbreviations for when some of this information is unknown:

  • [s.l.] stands for “sine loco,” which is Latin for “without a place.” 
  • [s.n.] stands for “sine nomine,” which is Latin for “without a name.”
  • [n.d.] stands for “no date.” 

Description. The most basic physical description of a book, including the number of pages or volumes, whether or not it is illustrated, and the height of the book on the shelf. 

Books printed before 1800 were made by printing several pages of text on each large sheet of paper, which was then folded to the finished book’s size.  Catalogue records sometimes include the book’s format, or how many pages were printed on each sheet of paper.  These are the most common formats:

  • Folio (fol.) The sheet was folded once, with each sheet making two leaves/four pages.
  • Quarto (4to) The sheet was folded twice, making four leaves/eight pages.
  • Octavo (8vo) The sheet was folded three times, making eight leaves/16 pages.
  • Duodecimo (12mo) After printing, the sheet was cut and then folded, with each sheet making 12 leaves/24 pages.
  • Sextodecimo or “sixteenmo” (16mo) The sheet was folded four times, making 16 leaves/32 pages.

Signatures. A concise, formulaic way of describing how the pages of a book were printed, folded,  and sewn together.  For detailed information about bibliographic format and signature statements, see Philip Gaskell’s A New Introduction to Bibliography.

Bound-with. Works that were originally published separately, and bound together by a former owner.

Cited In. Some bibliographies are commonly referred to by abbreviated titles, surnames, or acronyms. For help finding identifying bibliographies cited in catalogue records, see Standard Citation Forms for Rare Book Cataloguing

Provenance. Information relating to a book’s previous owners and the marks that they’ve left.

Binding. Common terms used to describe rare book bindings include:

  • Boards. Stiff pieces of cardboard or wood that make up the front and back covers of a hard-bound book.
  • Half binding, half bound.  The spine and corners of a book are covered in a different material from the boards.  The first material named is generally the one used for the spine and corners.
  • Quarter binding, quarter bound. The spine of a book is covered in a different material from the boards. The first material named is generally the one used for the spine.
  • Vellum. Calfskin that has been specially treated, giving it an off-white colour and smooth texture.
  • Morocco. A type of leather made from goatskin, usually dyed in strong colours.
  • Parts of a book. A short video is available to view on Abebooks.com, which explains the different parts of a book.

Added Author. Rare book records use the label “Added Author” to trace not only authors, but other people and organizations who are related to the book in some way. For example publishers, printers, illustrators, engravers, and former owners.

Place name. Where the book was printed or published. In the Imprint, this information is transcribed directly from the title page and may be in other languages or use outdated forms of place names. In the Place name, the information is presented in its modern English form. Clicking on the place name will take you to a list of other books in the catalogue printed or published in that same place.

Record link. A stable URL that you can use to bookmark a catalogue record directly, rather than searching for it again.

Further reading:

For a good glossary of rare book terms, see ABC for Book Collectors by John Carter and Nicholas Barker, available as a free download from the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.