Adventures in Rare Book Cataloging

By Tatyana Pakhladzhyan, Rare Book Cataloguer

At the October festival celebrating the 500th birthday of anatomist Andreas Vesalius, The Drs. Barry and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Reading Room exhibited seven anatomical works drawn from the library’s extensive rare book holdings. Anatomy is one of the library’s major collecting strengths, including works by and related to Andreas Vesalius.

Visitors looking at books on display at 2014's Vesalius 500 festival.

Visitors looking at books on display at 2014’s Vesalius 500 festival. Photograph by Charles Manley.

Since the exhibited materials have been in the library’s collection for decades, I was curious to see how their online bibliographic records looked. As card catalogs turned into online catalogs at the end of last century, collection holdings became increasingly findable from far away. But in the process of converting card catalog records into online records, some items ended up with incomplete or incorrect information reflected in the online catalog. I found that the records of the seven anatomical holdings required some attention.

The purpose of rare book cataloging is to create elaborate catalog records for books printed during the hand-press period (c.1455c.1830) and to describe and record copy-specific information that would uniquely identify the library’s holding from other copies of the same title. Descriptive cataloging should be sufficiently detailed to represent the work.

Female flap anatomy from The Academy's copy of the 1559 English edition of Geminus’ Compendiosa.

Female flap anatomy from The Academy’s copy of the 1559 English edition of Geminus’ Compendiosa.

Rare book cataloging requires complete and faithful transcription of the title page in its original language, greater detail in the physical description area, and careful and thorough recording of various distinguishing points in the note area, including signature statements, identification of bibliographic format, annotations, pagination errors, illustration techniques and creators, printing method, binding style, and provenance. Full and accurate descriptions allow researchers to find materials in online catalogs. Adding images or links to digital copies is another catalog feature that allows for more sophisticated experience for rare material users.

I was particularly delighted to update the catalog record for the 1559 edition of Geminus’ Compendiosa totius anatomiae delineatio, aere exarata (A complete delineation of the entire anatomy engraved on copper). This beautiful folio is simply a work of art! Read more about the work in a recent blog post.

Male flap anatomy from The Academy's copy of the 1559 English edition of Geminus’ Compendiosa.

Male flap anatomy from The Academy’s copy of the 1559 English edition of Geminus’ Compendiosa.

The title page is an engraved plate, with a hand-colored portrait of Queen Elizabeth at center and the royal motto “Dieu et mon droit” under the portrait. Facing the title is the leaf with arms of the Order of the Garter “Honi soit qui mal y pense,” decorated with jewels. (Thanks to my library colleagues for helping me prove that “Honi soit qui mal y pense” motto is, in fact, the motto of the Order of the Garter.)

The coat of arms, left, and title page, right, of the Academy's copy of the 1559 English edition of Geminus’ Compendiosa.

The coat of arms, left, and title page, right, of the Academy’s copy of the 1559 English edition of Geminus’ Compendiosa.

Checking standard bibliographies for corresponding period and making identifying references is an essential step to rare book cataloging. While consulting A Bio-Bibliography of Andreas Vesalius by Harvey Cushing, (1943, no. VI.C-4, p. 128), I found his comment about known copies at that time, stating that the “leaf before title bearing royal arms and ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense,’ is missing in all copies but London (BM [British Museum]).” Our copy has this leaf, seen above left.

Rare book cataloging also requires pointing out differences between printings, or manifestations, of a particular work. While consulting the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) that lists more than 480,000 items published between 1473 and 1800, I found that the entry for this work has a note, “a variant state has B7 unsigned.” In the hand-press era, books were printed as sheets with varying numbers of pages per side, with signature marks as letters, numbers, or symbols at the bottom of each leaf to help binders assemble the sheets of a book into the right order. I was curious to find out if the NYAM copy was a variation with signature B7 unsigned, but it is signed, although not on the bottom of the page.

Note "B.vii" hiding at the bottom right of the page. The Academy's copy of the 1559 English edition of Geminus’ Compendiosa.

Note “B.vii” hiding under the text at the right of the page. The Academy’s copy of the 1559 English edition of Geminus’ Compendiosa.

The library’s 1559 edition, the English translation by Nicholas Udall, is a reissue of the 1553 edition, with a slightly different title page, a dedication, and a colophon leaf. Bookseller information from the colophon at foot of last leaf reads: “Imprinted at London within the blacke fryars: by Thomas Gemini. Anno Salutis. 1559. Mense Septemb.”

Final leaf with colophon. The Academy's copy of the 1559 English edition of Geminus’ Compendiosa.

Final leaf with colophon. The Academy’s copy of the 1559 English edition of Geminus’ Compendiosa.

Cataloging rare books is an exciting process and sometimes even an adventure, as older books are unique and carry impressions of their formal owners. Our copy’s provenance includes bookplate of bibliophile George Dunn, “From the Library of George Dunn of Woolley Hall near Maidenhead.” It was a generous gift to the Academy library from Mrs. George S. Huntington, the wife of a prominent anatomist.

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