Chapter 311 The Importance of Good Bibliographic Skill

As I sit here chewing Shakespearean Insult Gum, I realize I only have time for a quick post, as I’ve got a lot of Thanksgiving preparations underway at the moment. On the book side of things, I’m off to visit Mr. Z at his shop Monday, where I plan to learn how to properly account in my computer program (BookHound) for books purchased with another bookseller. We split the cost and the profit when we do so, but we have to remember that when the book sells. I want to make sure my computer is set up to remind me of these things. I also promised another bookseller a quote on a couple of books. I’m looking forward to receiving some books bought at auction in the mail this week, too. That’s probably the only bookish work that will happen this week.

In an effort to provide something useful, I’m posting an article that I originally wrote for BookThink a few months ago. It’s about reference books. Reference books are the bedrock of a bookseller’s knowledge. Some of the really obscure volumes can provide information on a book that can increase it’s value. Here’s the article:

The Accidental Antiquarian
Researching Your Books: The Importance of Good Bibliographic Skill
By Chris Lowenstein

Ever wonder what kind of books an antiquarian bookseller collects for himself?

The answer is: Antiquarian booksellers are in the business of selling books. The only books they hold onto are reference books.

Reference books include things like glossaries of book-related terms, author bibliographies, subject bibliographies, and price guides. Reference books are usually ponderous, heavy things that cost a lot of money. They are usually valuable for resale only to other antiquarian booksellers or to diehard book collectors.They usually sport staid, insitutional, dark cloth bindings. There is, it seems, no joy in reference books, yet many booksellers will say they are the most valuable of all books.

One of the great joys of being an antiquarian bookseller is doing research on a book to help determine its significance. In addition to the pleasure of learning a lot about a new subject, one can occasionally discover information not generally known by others. When this happens, the seller is able to add value to the book by illuminating its importance for others. He is also, I hope, able to add to his reputation as a bookseller by doing so. Good bibliographic skills are a necessity for selling antiquarian books. Investing your time and money in acquiring good bibliographies can ultimately help build your bottom line.

You can get to know which bibliographies might be best for the type of book you sell by reading a lot in your subject area. If you’re in a hurry, you can ask other booksellers you know to tell you their favorite bibliographies. If you’re lucky, you may find an experienced bookseller in your area who offers tutelage in reference books. There’s a bookseller where I live who offers a reference workshop each year. He is a very experienced bookseller, and one reason he is successful is because he has an impressive reference library. The curious mind can find the answer to almost any question there. If you don’t personally know any other booksellers, visit your nearest college library and familiarize yourself with titles like the Bibliography of American Literature, the National Union Catalogue, and the New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature as a start.These books are voluminous, but they are every bookseller’s friend. You’ll learn the titles of other helpful volumes as you read.

Whenever I sell a book, I set aside a small portion of the profit in my reference book fund. As I save enough for the titles I want, I purchase them, one at a time. Yes, I realize this is slow, but I’m in bookselling for the long haul. Eventually, I intend to have several thousand volumes of reference books. The real challenge is finding a place to store said volumes.

In addition to building a good reference book collection, an antiquarian bookseller needs to spend time building good bibliographic skills.

Not long after I decided to enter the antiquarian book business, I bought a 36-volume set of the works of Charles Dickens from a house call. The dates in the books and the fact that they were bound in signed leather bindings gave me my first clue that these books might be valuable. Unsure at the time whether the set was even complete, I impulsively purchased it thinking that, if nothing else, it would sure look pretty on a shelf.

When I returned home with my new purchase, I immediately offered the set to another bookseller I know. He was interested, but asked me to identify which edition of Charles Dickens the books were (Dickens is such a popular author that there are hundreds of different editions of his works) and to do a complete collation of each of the 36 volumes.

Brand new bookseller that I was, I did not know how to do a collation of even a single book, let alone 36 volumes. I immediately picked up John Carter’s ABC For Book Collectors, a handy encyclopedia of book-related terms and the first reference that should be bought by someone new to antiquarian books, and turned to the definition of COLLATION. In Carter’s words, collation is “the bibliographical description of the physical composition of a book, expressed in a more or less standardized formula. Collation, in this sense, consists of three parts: an indication of the format [of the book], the register of signatures, and a record of the number of leaves.” Collation is important when evaluating antiquarian books because it gives the bibliographer a clue as to whether the book is complete.

Two other books about bibliography proved instructive. Ronald B. McKerrow’s An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students and Philip Gaskell’s A New Introduction to Bibliography were difficult to read and understand, but spending a bit of time taking notes each evening, I taught myself enough to do a basic collation of my set of books. I have another generous, more experienced bookseller to thank for giving me both of those books. I also know another bookseller who claims to read these books on Friday nights before bed! And I thought I was the only one. 😉

A good Dickens bibliography was also helpful in determining the edition of my set, which dated from 1872. The bibliography I used, John Podeschi’s Dickens and Dickensiana: A Catalogue of the Richard Gimbel Collection in the Yale University Library, gave the collational formula for each book the bibliographer used in compiling his bibliography. The dates, description, and collation of my set matched one of the sets described in Podeschi’s bibliography. Because of this, I was able to document the significance of the set I offered for sale.

Once I knew that my set was complete, I had no trouble selling it right away. That sale allowed me to buy a plane ticket to Colorado Springs to attend the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, a place where I could be formally schooled in methods of thorough research and bibliography. It’s also a place where you can be properly instructed in all aspects of bookselling, and I highly recommend it. Full and partial scholarships are available to help booksellers attend.

If you intend to be an antiquarian bookseller, you need to learn to do thorough research and to become comfortable using the tools of a bibliographer. Collation is complex, and isn’t something that can be thoroughly explained in a short article. It’s something best learned from an expert and from study and practice. The time and effort you invest in good bibliographic skills pay off in the ability to document significant books. The ability to offer good books with good bibliographic documentation will increase your sales and your reputation as a knowledgeable seller.

See you in the stacks!

4 Comments

Filed under A Bookseller's Education, Bibliography and Reference Books, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Chapter 311 The Importance of Good Bibliographic Skill

  1. Thanks. I needed to hear that today!

  2. I am sorry, i HAVE to do this – it’s one of the rules

    You have been tagged.

    Here are the rules:

    1. Link to the person or persons who tagged you.
    2. Post the rules on your blog.
    3. Write six random things about yourself.
    4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them.
    5. Let each person know they’ve been tagged and leave a comment on their blog.
    6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

  3. I too am interestin in bibliography, and I do have the McKerrow book (bibliography for students) that Chris mentions. I am also trying to find the John Carter book.

    Thank you Chris, for a very informative post.

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