Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The thrills of cataloguing libraries – a Vulpes Libris Random.

10595382516_9c4ab1993a_oI’m a librarian by profession, but I never used to be captivated by the task of cataloguing books – until quite recently, that is. I was never sufficiently tidy-minded, and I preferred bibliographical tracing and information retrieval (still do – the joys of the hunt). So I do know enough to be deeply grateful for the care and expertise that goes into cataloguing to make my life so much easier.

I had never regarded the life of a cataloguer as full of thrills – but now I know how very wrong I was. There may be esoteric pleasure only in cataloguing new books straight from the publisher – in fact in many instances a new book with a print run of thousands needs to be catalogued only once, by one person, then all the identical copies can share the same basic record. But when cataloguing a library – someone’s personal collection, or a library that has accumulated over time – there is absolutely no telling what you might find, some of it buried treasure. Just look at the illustration – an early printed book (Venice, c. 1494) with hidden in the binding waste from an even earlier printed book. Some medieval works are known only from fragments of waste found in the bindings of later books. (Should I get out more? Please make free with your opinions in the comments section.)

A number of factors make a rare book – scarcity obviously, individual features including binding and rebinding, but also provenance and evidence left by the those who owned and/or read them – autographs, bookplates, writing, underlining, doodles, objects left between pages – even the marks from candle spits and sparks from the fire can give a vivid sense of a living person connected to the book.

So, in today’s Vulpes Random, I’m going to share with you some links to sites and projects that I hope make my point for me.

First of all, a gentle introduction to our heroes, the Cataloguers. I’ve already pointed you towards the wonderful Mya Gosling, aka Good Tickle-Brain, in her capacity of hilarious demystifier of Shakespeare’s plays and characters. She has a parallel existence as a library cataloguer in a highly technical field, and her wonderful strip cartoons will give you a taste of the cataloguer’s world.

By stealth, a huge rare book cataloguing project is taking place in Britain. Over time, the libraries of the National Trust are being catalogued. Not all NT properties have a library in place that dates back to the families that owned them, but where they do the books quietly tell as much as the art and artefacts about the people who lived there. As the libraries are catalogued, the records are made available online.
The NT’s blog tells of two of the most exciting projects currently underway. First of all, Blickling Hall in Norfolk, where cataloguing the 12500 books in the 18th c library of Sir Richard Ellys is likely to take around ten years. Here, the discoveries are old, rare and beautiful.

The library at Sissinghurst presents a contrast. The books belonged to the famous literary couple Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. The books are on the whole not ancient or rare, many are review copies sent to them. The thrills lie in the stories they tell about their owners: the books they owned together, the books they owned separately, the books they gave to one another. Their annotations are gold-dust – finding a comment scribbled in a margin by Vita, with an insight direct from Virginia Woolf, is first-hand evidence for scholars that would have stayed buried if the library had not been catalogued. Here is the NT blog post on this project:

Finally, imagine working through a shelf of anonymous-looking books and finding completely hidden treasure. The blog Colossal: Art, Design and Visual Culture has some gems. First, some medieval doodles:

And second – take a look at this, and you will want to fan the pages of any old book you see from now on to see if it hides a fore-edge painting:

It has taken me a while to see the light. Now I am helping to take care of a historic library, I know from personal experience just how much fascination is to be found inside those rows of books, each hiding its secrets inside its sober binding.

All links accessed 10th November 2014.

The illustration is taken from the Flickr photostream of the Burns Library, Boston College, and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons licence.  Clicking on the image will load the source page.  This is the caption:

Sermones de laudibus sanctorum
Printed in Venice ca. 1494, the limp vellum binding of this book is lined with a fragment from a folio-sized page of an early printed book.
To view the bibliographic record for this book, see the following link:
[…and then take a look at this link to the full record, and marvel at the level of research that has gone into it.]

6 comments on “The thrills of cataloguing libraries – a Vulpes Libris Random.

  1. Kate
    November 10, 2014

    I love the medieval doodles!

  2. Jackie
    November 10, 2014

    This was a fascinating entry & I’m really looking forward to checking out all of the links and reading more of those cartoons. Thanks for the terrific post on an unusual topic!

  3. ABB
    November 10, 2014

    Fascinating essay – my thanks, Hilary.

    The Bruce Peel Special Collections Library at the University of Alberta had a wonderful small exhibition in 2012 called ‘The Spacious Margin: Eighteenth-Century Printed Books and the Traces of their Readers’. It featured a selection of 62 books in which readers had written annotations, comments, dedications, and other marginalia. Most of the books dated to the eighteenth century. The hand-writing was difficult to read in places, but there was an accompanying catalogue that gave transcribed versions – the catalogue is still available at I found it an absorbing and interesting exhibition – I loved the sense of a conversation between readers spanning the centuries. But then, I love libraries! 🙂

  4. Moira
    November 11, 2014

    Oh I loved this … I mean … who knew? And why do I feel that I may have missed my vocation?

  5. Becca
    November 12, 2014

    This is the perfect post for me! Thank-you for all those lovely links. I remember when I was location-checking books in the museum I use to work at, I spent so much of my time leafing through the books to see if there were any notes in the margins or on the end-papers (I found a child’s sketch of a ship once! and some people had obviously been using the endpaper of their books as pen-wipers…)

  6. CFisher
    November 15, 2014

    As the son of a librarian I grew up in a house where all the, many, non-fiction books were catalogued according the Dewey Decimal System. My father could lay his hands on any book he wanted or was asked about. As a wanton youth I rejected order and embraced disorder. Now, I couldn’t live without the knowledge of knowing where each book is located. Wonderful post!

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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