We’re very pleased to announce that our website now features a full glossary of rare book terms, a great resource if you’re ever puzzled by a word we use when describing a book. To compliment this, I’ve also written a short explanation of our catalogue entries. These are used to describe books on our website, on secondary sites such as ABE, and in our printed catalogues. They are standardized across all formats and for all types of books, and should tell you everything you need to know when considering a purchase.
As an introduction we’ll look at a simple catalogue entry for a modern book. It’s divided into three fields: title, description, and notes:
HEMINGWAY, Ernest. For Whom the Bell Tolls. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1940 
Octavo. Original light brown cloth, titles to spine black on red ground and to upper board in black, red top-stain. With the dust jacket. Top-stain faded, toning to endpapers. An excellent copy in the rubbed, creased, and chipped jacket. £375
First edition, first printing, in the first issue dust jacket without the photographer’s credit.
Title field: This section gives basic identifying information: the author is in bold, the title (and other information from the title page) is in plain text, and the imprint, or publication information, is italicised. Next comes the stock code in square brackets–each of our books receives a unique numerical code for identification (which is very helpful to quote when corresponding with us!)
The title field sometimes contains words in parentheses or square brackets. Parentheses (round brackets) indicate extra information, such as the subject matter. For example, an anonymous tract on the First World War will display (FIRST WORLD WAR) in place of an author’s name. Books illustrated by famous artists list the artist’s name in parentheses before the author’s. A copy of Peter Pan illustrated by Arthur Rackham appears in this way: (RACKHAM, Arthur) BARRIE, J. M.. Square brackets, on the other hand, contain information that is missing from the book and that is provided by us. For instance, if a book is undated, but research uncovers a publication date, it is indicated in this way: .
Description field: The second field is reserved for a physical description of the book. We begin with a standard description listing:
- the format
- for re-bound books, the size of the pages in millimetres (height × width)
- if a set, the number of volumes
- the binding, including the types and colours of material used, how titles or decorations appear, extras such as decorative endpapers or gilt edges, and whether the dust jacket is present
- the number and type of illustrations, if any
The remainder of this field describes the book’s condition and any defects. Beginning with the outside of the book and working our way in, we list all of the book’s faults, provide our overall impression of the condition, and usually give it one of the ratings listed below. (Keep in mind that rating a book is an art rather than a science.)
- Fine: An exceptionally well preserved copy showing (if modern) no sign of wear, or (if early) remarkably little. Bindings may also be fine in terms of the quality of their execution.
- Excellent: Minor flaws, which are enumerated, prevent the copy from receiving the highest accolade, but it is nevertheless an exceptional copy.
- Very good: Although with some named faults, the copy is a better-than-average example on the market, the good quality binding sound or skilfully repaired, and the contents clean and well preserved.
- Good: A copy in acceptable condition, with named faults, but the binding is sound or well restored, and the contents complete and generally clean.
- Poor: A copy in less than ideal condition, with named faults that would normally make it undesirable, unless compensated for by an inscription, interesting provenance or some other desirable factor.
- Reading copy: A copy suitable for reading, but not for collecting, and therefore not stocked by us.
With modern books the rating does not take into account the dust jacket unless the book is a fine copy, so we describe the jacket separately and last. For books printed before 1900, particularly those from the era of the hand-press, the condition refers more to the contents than the state of the binding, which is equivalent to the dust jacket on a modern book.
Notes field: The best part! This field always begins with the edition statement and an explanation of any points that indicate a first printing. But it also contains other information relevant to the book’s scarcity or importance, such as the meaning of authorial inscriptions, the impact of the book on history or literature, biographical details of the author, and the book’s publication history. This is the meat of the description, where the the cataloguer has the chance to shine as a writer and to convince the reader why a book is great.
So that’s a catalogue entry for a rare book, and we hope you enjoy reading many more! If you have questions about the contents or terminology of an entry please get in touch, and don’t forget to check our new glossary. If we’ve missed out a term you find unfamiliar or confusing, please let us know.
This is the third in a series of posts discussing rare book terminology. Other planned installments include Book Formats, Describing Books, and Condition.