University of Virginia Library

When in 1974 John Bush Jones put together an anthology of Readings in Descriptive Bibliography, dealing with some of the developments since Fredson Bowers's Principles of Bibliographical Description (1949), he pointed out in his preface that there was nothing for him to include regarding the quasi-facsimile transcription of title pages and the formulaic recording of signature collation. It is true that less has been written on these subjects in recent decades than on other aspects of bibliographical description and classification. The reason, presumably, is that bibliographers have felt there was not much left to say.[1] These two features have been more frequently included in descriptions, and over a longer period of time, than the other elements that we now expect to find in a thorough description: many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century descriptions consisted of little else, and even in more recent years abbreviated entries have been likely to be limited largely to these two elements. There has thus been ample opportunity for the techniques in the two areas to be refined through practice and discussion, and most bibliographers probably regard the conventions that have emerged as more firmly established than those associated with any other part of a description. Nevertheless, a fresh look periodically at accepted conventions can be salutary; and in fact some further discussion of these matters seems called for at present.

The nature of what needs to be said is rather different in the two cases, however. In regard to title-page transcription, the question is not so much what methods or conventions should be used in transcribing as whether transcription should be attempted at all. One reviewer in 1981 echoed a not uncommon sentiment in discussing Sidney L. Gulick's Chesterfield bibliography: "Is the transcription of the title-page in quasi-facsimile


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any longer necessary or defensible? So much more information and relative accuracy would be gained by photo-reproduction of title-pages, even greatly reduced in size."[2] This reviewer chides the Bibliographical Society of America, the publisher of the volume, for not producing "something a little more advanced bibliographically"—as if a technological advance, allowing photographic reproductions to be inexpensively produced ("the cost advantage of minimizing compositor's work has steadily increased"), were necessarily a bibliographical advance. Whether or not photographic facsimiles should supplant transcriptions cannot be so simply settled as some have imagined: the question involves the essential nature of bibliographical description, and it must be thought about in the context of the full range of techniques of quotation.

What requires further discussion concerning signature collation, on the other hand, is the technique for recording certain kinds of detail, not the desirability of providing the collation in the first place. I am assuming that the importance of signature collation for books of all periods no longer needs to be argued. But perhaps I am wrong to assume so much, for bibliographies of twentieth-century books do still sometimes appear without collations, and one of our prominent bibliographers could say in 1970, "Collation by signatures is unnecessary for most contemporary books except in special cases."[3] It is perhaps in order, therefore, to say something further on this score; but the usefulness of signature collation as a bibliographical practice, at least under some circumstances, has not been called into question in the way that title-page transcription has. A few suggestions, however, have been made in recent years regarding the form of notation that should be used in certain situations, and a few more are worth considering. They do not add up to any major modification of the formulary of collation codified by Bowers in the Principles; but they do show the results of continuing to think critically about the matter.