Does bibliography still matter?

The famous bookseller H.P. Kraus once stated that bibliography is like ‘a fine-tuned piano’. He certainly made use of this belief evident by his enormous reference library. The first group of his reference library was sold to fellow antiquarian book dealers after he died in 1988. This was followed up a number of subsequent sales in the 90s. A person associated with the H.P. Kraus store once told me that Mr. Kraus often kept multiple copies of the same bibliography so that they would be within easy reach in case of need. I remember snickering when I heard it because it sounded so absurd. But I was not even 30 at the time and did not have full grasp of how some bibliophiles think. I am now, many years later, in the exact same position as H.P. Kraus. It was not an orderly plan… it just ended up this way. I have four copies of Dibdin’s bibliography of the Greek & Latin classics, two sets of Brunet with all nine volumes, including the supplement and three copies of Sandys History of Classical Scholarship and so on. But does bibliography still matter? It’s easy to fill up shelves with reference books and as my mentor, the late George Allen of William H. Allen Booksellers told me back in the mid 1980s…. “If you use it once, its paid for”. Bibliography grew out of a need for catalogue listings organized based on general subjects and size. [Luigi Balsamo offers an excellent historical overview in his work conveniently called ‘Bibliography’]. There were some attempts during the early 18th century to explain the rarity of certain books while others published various subject bibliographies. But many of these publications were printed in Latin and failed to reach a broader book collecting audience. The first general bibliography ‘Bibliographie instructive’ was published by de Bure in Paris 1763-1768. The 19th century experienced an explosion of bibliographies some more useful than others. Most popular was Brunet’s Manuel du Libraire with the last edition printed in 1880. Then there was Graesse Tresor de livres Rares et Precieux in eight volumes printed in 1859 and Ebert’s 2 volumes Allgemeines Bibliographisches Lexikon in 1821. England would not be left behind, so Lowndes came out with his Bibliographers Manual first in the 1830s, and later revised in the 1869. in the US, Sabin published a 29-volume set called Bibliotheca Americana. Then, of course, there are the numerous subject bibliographies. Prior to the internet, no self-respecting antiquarian bookseller would issue a catalogue without referencing some of these bibliographies in his listing descriptions. Bibliographies were also expensive. A set of Adams Catalogue of 16th century books at Cambridge University sold in mid 1980s for $650. It was extremely important because it contained all the paginations of every title listed. It now sells online for $250 or less. When reviewing bookseller listings on ABE these days, very few mention any of the bibliographical references listed above. All that seem to matter these days is price. While I understand the importance of the free market, showing bibliographical references when appropriate means the bookseller did his research. Listing a price that is $25 cheaper than ‘the other guy’ is not the answer. Is the book complete and does it have all the plates? Some old books, for example, were printed both with and without supplements and indexes. For those interested in 19th and 20th century fiction, is the title posted for a sale a true first edition, or a first edition, second issue? Any limitations? How would you know for certain unless you verify in a bibliography on the subject? I don’t claim as a bookseller to be perfect in my descriptions by any means though I always try. I am also book collector and I strongly believe in knowing as much as possible in my collecting interest and I learnt a long time ago that it requires bibliography. And I never assume the bookseller or auctioneer know more than I do. So yes, bibliography matter and it always will.

12 thoughts on “Does bibliography still matter?”

  1. I think there was a book published about the history of the Britannica. The biographical information that I find in some of the old encyclopedias tends to be far more interesting because they bring up names of individuals with often detailed commentaries who were important at the time but are completely unknown today. Some encyclopedias published by a Catholic author wrote disparaging commentaries about a contemporary Protestant. But the German Protestants who published the encyclopedias during the same time period as well were no better when it came to commenting on Catholics.

    1. “who were important at the time but are completely unknown today.”

      One of my favorites sets is a group of books by Stanley J. Kunitz, published beginning in the mid-30s and continuing into the 60s (later works being co-authored). Some of these are monstrously huge. The entries are incredibly well-researched, objective yet sensitive where appropriate. (The entry on Emily Dickinson is the best bio of her I’ve ever read. British Authors 18th C runs to almost 700 pages; 20th C over 1500. These and a few Oxford or Cambridge volumes are my go-tos when I want to learn about someone and his work.

      Interestingly, at That Infallible Source, “Stanley J. Kunitz” redirects to “Stanley Kunitz” an American poet (1905-2006) of no relation to our Mr. Kunitz.

      To your statement. Yet another reason to read the old stuff. Imparts a sense of humility to the reader.

  2. I have The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature Vols. I through IV, (660 – 1900) and Supplement, all published in 1941, along with several more specialized bibliographies. Included among those are a digitized version of Potter’s (1929) A Bibliography of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam. This, I’ll add, does not include the P.F. Collier edition I have.

    I agree that bibliographies, and for me also older encyclopedias of writer and such are extremely valuable research tools.

    Re. your comment to MarciaWAC. The internet drives me nuts. Assertions of fact without citations is just wrong. And your story of young snickering you made me laugh!

    1. The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature is a good standard. I think Lowndes Bibliographer Manual is available on Google books and it is quite useful for English literature as well. But you want the revised 1860 edition. For American Fiction there is ‘American Fiction, A Contribution Toward a Bibliography’ by Lyle Wright. It was printed in three volumes and is very cheap these days. I like encyclopedias as well. The older the better. I learnt years ago that the 11th edition of the Britannica is the preferred edition because the articles were more focused on the humanities. The Britannica went through an editorial revision after the 11th and later editions are not as reliable. I could not afford bibliography back in the mid 80s because I was just out of grad school. A friend gave me a few odd volumes of Brunet and it remained my tool for a few years. I also spent many hours on Saturdays in the reference library at my mentor’s bookstore.

      1. The history of encyclopedias is fascinating. Britannica especially. The pirated 9th ed. American version is fun. Werner’s I think. (Did I get that right?)

        One of my treasures is a like-new The Encyclopedia of Philosophy from 1972. It’s the second printing of the first edition, eight volumes, two per book. Daughter found it someplace for $1/book. No longer in print. Very valuable resource.

        Another good bibliography is The Literature of American History: A Bibliographical Guide edited by J.N. Larned (1902). He’s also the author of A multitude of Counsellors: Being a Collection of Codes, Percepts and Rules of Life from the Wise of All Ages (1901). I should post about that book someday. It’s amazing. From “Ptah-Hotep, the Egyptian through Thoreau.

        1. Speaking of Encyclopedias, this beautiful book is from 1883. The Encyclopedia of Anecdotes Literature and the Fine Arts. Almost 700 pages of anecdotes and 200 pages of wonderful illustrations.

        2. As you said, only one image per reply. I thought this page from the Encyclopedia of Anecdotes was a rather fun example of some of the entries

  3. I think reference books could become my only go to source if the internet continues to be so irritating. Pop up, ads, notices and the page jumping up and down etc. And, how lovely to look an empty bookshelf? Every time I venture to Abe Books, et al I’m amazed that there is, as you said, very little information pertaining to publication, issue, condition etc. And, most often no image or a stock image. Often when researching a particular book the books showing up in a search are modern reprints. One must read the description carefully to determine this fact and often it isn’t mentioned. Who is buying these books without the pertinent information?

    1. I have found that the internet is extremely inaccurate as a research tool on old books. I prefer to rely on my own bibliographical resources. Many dealers on ABE who I think should know better opt to quote from Wikipedia or other similar sources in their descriptions. I don’t think it is necessary to overload the shelves with reference books, but depending on one’s collecting interest, it certainly is worth acquiring the standards within that field.

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