Help me understand why desciptive bibliography is useful.
July 26, 2011 7:52 PM   Subscribe

How are descriptive bibliographies of modern books useful to scholars & researchers? Rephrased: what questions are answered by the information they contain?

Help me understand what descriptive bibliography (DB) offers scholars of modern, machine-press books. I understand the benefits of knowing the DB facts about older, hand-press books, such as the collation formula, signature statement, paper size etc. Ex.: Why would a Eugene O'Neill scholar want to know the size, cover color and typefaces in the third UK edition of Mourning Becomes Electra? I really want to understand how this kind of resource is used.

If you have used DBs to study modern authors, how does the info therein help you understand your subject?

posted by wowbobwow to Writing & Language (2 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I suppose you could use it to understand the material culture parts of reception: cover art, illustrations, and form factor can tell you a lot about who's buying and who's reading (or who they're aiming at, in any event.)

Knowing that a classic got a "Romance Novel-like" cover, for instance (as happens oddly often), would tell you who that edition was shooting for, which undoubtedly would be fascinating if you were looking at how the text fit into the moment.
posted by LucretiusJones at 8:45 PM on July 26, 2011

Best answer: It's a common misconception that books from the hand-press period are complex and variable whereas books from the machine-press period are simple and uniform. In fact nineteenth- and twentieth-century books are full of variants, both within and between editions. Descriptive bibliographies serve the same role as type specimens in biology, in providing a standard description of an edition which can then be checked against any given copy of that edition.

Last year I published a descriptive bibliography of a nineteenth-century author; only a five-finger exercise, but it taught me some useful lessons. It taught me that many nineteenth-century books are extremely rare, and may only survive in one or two copies. It taught me that mistakes often get copied blindly from one library catalogue to another, and can only be corrected by checking the books themselves. It also taught me that it's important to describe bindings properly, as they can reveal important information about a book's publication history; binding variants are often a sign that a book sold badly, and that copies were kept in loose sheets in the warehouse for a long time before being bound up and remaindered. So, yes, descriptive bibliographies have their uses.

Only the other day there was a question on AskMetaFilter about a book published in 1977, which turned out to be surprisingly difficult to answer. A good descriptive bibliography could have solved the problem instantly. And if you're dealing with authors like Auden or Lowell who constantly revised their own work, or authors like Beckett or Nabokov who wrote in more than one language, or authors like Orwell whose books were translated for propaganda purposes, or authors like Joyce or Lawrence whose books were censored or suppressed, or authors like Scott Fitzgerald whose books were issued in pictorial dustwrappers that often got thrown away, then you'll need a descriptive bibliography to help you.
posted by verstegan at 4:45 AM on July 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

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