The smell of old books

Oxford Sept. 2011 068

The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

I learned about cataloguing antiquarian books last week and (sort of) catalogued one this week. The bibliography side of  librarianship is something I’d like to learn more about, but haven’t done a great deal of. I learned a little bit about it during my time as a graduate trainee in Oxford. I remember sitting in a little room somewhere in the Bodleian (I think) listening to a presentation about book conservation; and one of our last few training sessions was about antiquarian books – we looked at some lovely books held in the library of Christ Church College. In the library where I worked as a trainee there was a room of antiquarian French books, where I met the oldest book I’ve handled to-date, a little book from the 1500s whose name now escapes me. The room was very cold and humidified and smelled, as it should do. However, since those days I’ve had very little to do with antiquarian books, and I’m not sure how likely  it is that I’ll work more with them in the future, but I’d like to think it might happen one day, so I was glad to have the chance to learn about cataloguing them.

I suspected that cataloguing antiquarian books was going to be somewhat different from cataloguing ‘normal’ (post 1820/1840 depending on who you ask) books, but I didn’t realise quite how involved it can be.  I was particularly unprepared for the effort required in (for example) counting leaves and pages, and you really do need to know your stuff in terms of how books were made before the era of mechanisation, and some knowledge of the history of printing probably comes in handy, too. I learned about lots of technical terms I wasn’t previously aware of, and was slightly bewildered by the use of symbols – the 300 field vaguely resembled a mathematical equation!

The cataloguing of antiquarian books is a fascinating area of  librarianship, and one I hope to learn more about. Apparently Philip Gaskell’s A New Introduction to Bibliography is worth reading, and we just happen to have a copy of it in the library…

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