When is a Book Not a Book?: “Pseudodoxia Bibliographica”

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The following assertion from the Monk Project’s description (and quoted by Anna in her comments about this tool):

the scholarly use of digital texts must progress beyond treating them as book surrogates and move towards the exploration of the potential that emerges when you put many texts in a single environment that allows a variety of analytical routines to be executed across some or all of them

identifies an issue that has interested me for a while now and is behind my embryonic formulations of the differences between digital database collections that act as delivery systems (JStor, Project Muse, etc) and those that proffer other functions such as serving as finding aids. The tendency to see digitized works such as those found in Google Books (in its present incarnation) as surrogates for physical books has frequently resulted in users’ frustrations and disappointment in using these resources. This tendency led me to title a paper I gave at last year’s MLA “When is a Book Not a Book?: Using Google Book Search.” Thus, when collecting additional material in preparation for the EC/ASECS and ASECS sessions, I was understandably drawn to an article by Hugh Amory entitled, “Pseudodoxia Bibliographica, or When is a Book Not a Book? When It’s a Record” (The Scholar & the Database: Papers Presented on 4 November 1999 at the CERL Conference Hosted by the Royal Library, Brussels, 2 [2001]: 1-14).

Amory’s article is concerned with the distortions and misconceptions that can result when historians treat an imprint catalogue’s entries as books or titles. Amory uses the term “imprint catalogues” to refer to ESTC (incorporating Pollard and Redgrave and Wing) and the machine-readable form of Evans reshaped for the North American Imprints Program (NAIP) (2) and distinguishes these research tools from the original Evans and from European bibliographies. While those interested should read the article in its entirety, I offer the following extracts that I found especially noteworthy or interesting:

“[O]ur bibliographies do not form a coherent series, employing different measures and various categories of the book” (1).

“”Indeed, the term ‘imprint’ itself is peculiarly English in its ambiguous complexity. It comprehends both a publisher’s imprint or marque d’éditeur and a printer’s imprint or achevé d’imprimer, as well as the editions in which these imprints occur—i.e. an imprimé—or even fail to occur. Only in English, I believe, is it possible for an imprint to have no imprint” (2).

“…any systematic, comprehensive access to places of publication is neglected…Unlike current national bibliographies, too, imprint bibliographies regularly include false and fictitious imprints” (3).

“Peculiar too to Anglophone bibliography is the inclusion of colonial and postcolonial printing in the retrospective national bibliographies of the mother country” (3).

These imprint catalogues

were never designed to answer the general questions posed by book history — to calibrate the relative size of metropolitan and colonial printing, for example, of religious and secular production, or the rise of the novel. The scope of imprint bibliographies is retroactive, imposing territorial and cultural inclusions and exclusions that were alien to their periods. Indeed, even the cataloguing of a database is retroactive, defined by the nature of the question. The numbers that pour forth in such profusion represent a certain number of ‘hits’, not entries, and the fuller the cataloguing, the higher the number of ‘hits’. (4)

“…it may be unfair to demand that imprint catalogues ‘represent’ anything, even imprints, for whose history they provide no more raw material. Nor are they really designed for the production of statistics on literary or intellectual history, where, especially in the form of union catalogues, they serve rather as inventories” (7).

“[ESTC] is neither English, Short-Title, nor a Catalogue, since the ‘cataloguing’ is only a response shaped by the system at the user’s request. One of its most useful features, keyword searching, is precisely an index, whose accuracy and exhaustiveness depend on the illogical whims of language” (8).

“The very accessibility of these catalogues distorts their numbers, and the exclusion or cataloguing of serials makes them even less representative of ‘the amount of printing performed’ than Evans” (10).

“Nor is there any agreement on where a book ends and a pamphlet begins; as the Oxford English Dictionary remarks, ‘No absolute definition of a ‘book’ in this sense can be given’. … Escarpit, who abandons material concerns altogether, and proposes that the nature of a book is defined by how it is read–only opens up another abyss” (10).

“To provide a more meaningful series of data, a number of minor technical devices might be proposed… At present, one may record alternative places of publication in what is technically known in the MARC format as the 752 field, but we need a third, distinctive field for false or fictitious places, and the 752 field is all-too-rarely-used. One would like to link editions with issues, and issues with states that affect the imprint such as misprinted or variant dates in a unitary record” (12).

Again, the history of the book in the English-speaking realm needs a variety of new catalogues: an on-line catalogue of early periodicals that, at a minimum, would provide a count of the true number of issues, including those that have probably been lost; a catalogue of lost editions of monographs, or some standard for incorporating this information in imprint catalogues like ESTC; and finally, a census of books described in early libraries” (12).

One Response to “When is a Book Not a Book?: “Pseudodoxia Bibliographica””

  1. Anna Battigelli Says:

    I have added Amory’s article to our bibliography. The bibliographical problems Amory identified have become even more important with the proliferation of online bibliographies and digital text-bases. His point that

    [O]ur bibliographies do not form a coherent series, employing different measures and various categories of the book (1)

    seems particularly pertinent to the concerns discussed here regarding search mechanisms for ESTC, EEBO, and ECCO.

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