Bibliographic control of early printed books

Originally written in the first half of 2013.


This essay will provide a brief account of some attempts to achieve bibliographic control of early (published before 1800) printed1 books (focussing mainly on English language texts). It will examine both historical attempts, and modern attempts (such as online catalogues). A bibliography, in this context, is an organised list of books published in a particular category. For example, within a particular field or discipline, over a particular time period, in a particular geographical region, or with some other characteristic that limits the list and provides an overall theme. Bibliographic control is making sure that the descriptions of books in a bibliography or catalogue, are accurate and consistent, and are usable by the intended audience (though this can be difficult to measure) (Thomas, 1996). A brief look at potential issues in producing bibliographies of early books, along with possible solutions, and standards, is also provided.

Potential issues

Producing a bibliography of early books is potentially difficult for various reasons. Some of these comes down to lack of standardisation. For example, there is no standard book number (e.g. no ISBN)2, which would quickly allow a bibliographer to discern whether or not a copy of a book is the same edition as another copy. Title pages were not standardised, and so information related to publishers, printers, editors, dates and similar were not necessarily included. This information can sometimes be inferred (for example by looking at watermarks or signatures), but this is not a guarantee. Titles were also often quite long, leading to potential errors when recording, or to shortened titles (Tabor, 2007).

Other issues relate to differences in how publishing has changed. The way letters such as u/v, i/j were used (Smits & Fell, 2011, p. 196), and the use of ſ (the long s), and older style spelling can add difficulties. Whether the title and author should be provided as printed, or as it would be in modern English (Smits & Fell, 2011, p. 196) can mean that a work could be recorded twice because two different people have entered the information. Providing a full transcript of the title page, recording the item format (folio, quarto, etc.) and signatures (though not perfect) (Smits & Fell, 2011, p. 191) and/or enforcing standard cataloguing rules can alleviate this issue. Editions being changed in the middle of a print run, can for certain works (e.g. atlases (Smits & Fell, 2011)) result in quite mixed material.

Further issues relate to the age of the books being listed. They are often quite rare (Nimer & Daines, 2013, p. 532), fragile, or damaged. Other post-production changes (including by owners) and imperfections may mean that two copies of the same work maybe considered as two distinct works (Tanselle, 1980 in (Smits & Fell, 2011, p. 195).

Many of these points lead to the fact that for many books and works, there is no 'ideal' copy.

As mentioned, one solution to many of these problems is the use of standard rules for cataloguing books and other works. Standard rules include Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Books) and the older Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Books. Daines & Nimer (2012) provide a good overview of the various standards. The CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group (2007) have also published advice.

Actual attempts

There have been a number of attempts to provide bibliographies of early books, with probably the most successful being the English Short Title Catalogue (though no doubt its success is due partly to it incorporating earlier short title catalogues).

Incunabula Short Title Catalogue

The Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC) lists incunabula, that is, material printed in Europe before 1501 (not books printed only from woodblocks or engravings). It started in 1980 at the British Library, and initially based on Frederick R. Goff's Incunabula in American Libraries: A Third Census, of 1973. The ISTC, in principle, is “a register of extant incunabula”, but may also contain destroyed copies where there is sufficient evidence of its existence (The British Library, 2005, 2012).

Universal Short Title Catalogue

The Universal Short Title Catalogue (USTC) focuses on all books published from the invention of printing in Europe through to the end of sixteenth century (Universal Short Title Catalogue Project, n.d.). It works with other projects, such as the Iberian Book Project (Centre for the History of the Media, University College Dublin, 2010).

Pollard & Redgrave's Short Title Catalogue

In 1927, A Short-title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and of English Books Printed Abroad, 1475-1640 was published. Compiled by Alfred William Pollard, Gilbert Richard Redgrave, and others, it represents an attempt to list major works in English published from the 1400s through to 1640 (Queen’s University Library, 2006a).

Wing's Short Title Catalogue

Short-title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and British America and of English Books Printed in Other Countries 1641-1700 was first published in 1945, and represents a continuation of the Pollard & Redgrave's catalogue. Donald Goddard Wing was the primary editor, unlike with the previous work which had multiple contributors (Queen’s University Library, 2006b). Wing started work in 1934 with the books available in the Yale University Library (where he was a librarian). The third volume was published in 1951 (Sammons, 1994).

English Short Title Catalogue

The English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) started out as the Eighteenth Century Short Title Catalogue (Edwards, 2008), and is a large database listing material (over 470,000 items) published from 1473 to 1800 (“English Short-Title Catalog,” 2010; Kefford, n.d.). It started as a project to produce a machine readable union catalogue of printed material from English countries for 1701-1800 (Edwards, 2008). A team started work in 1977 at the British Library focusing on the Library's holdings, and an American team started work in 1979. This catalogue represents the holdings of over 2000 libraries (Edwards, 2011). The catalogue was available via BLAISE3 (from 1980) and the RLIN4 system (from 1981), was published in microfilm (1983) and CD-ROM (1996, 1999 & 2003) (Edwards, 2008), and was finally open to the general public on the WWW from 2006 (Tabor, 2007, p. 367). The scope of the project was changed in 1987 from merely eighteenth century works, to include all works published since the start of printing in Britain in 1472 (Edwards, 2008).

The ESTC is a joint effort by many libraries from around the world (“English Short-Title Catalog,” 2010) and incorporates and continues the previous two short title catalogues by Pollard & Redgrave, and by Wing, (McKitterick, 2005, p. 178; Tabor, 2007, p. 367,385). The ESTC has significant errors, and is a continual work in progress (Anonymous, 1999; Tabor, 2007).

Early English Books Online and Eighteenth Century Collections Online

Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) are collections of digitised books and other material. They are not full catalogues, and are more limited in their textual descriptions than the ESTC (Tabor, 2007).

EEBO (from ProQuest) is built upon both Pollard & Redgrave's and Wing's short title catalogues and other collections. It contains electronic versions of microfilmed text of most of the books and material listed (McMullin, 2002; ProQuest, n.d.). EEBO does deviate from these original sources though (McMullin, 2002, p. 224).

ECCO (from Gale) is derived from the ESTC, and includes images (from the Primary Source Microfilm's Eighteenth Century microfilm collection) for the approximately 150 000 items (LaGuardia, 2004).

Other resources

Being a brief account, this essay can in no way include all attempts at a universal catalogue or bibliography (whether truly universal, or restricted in some fashion, such as to “early” books or books in one language or another). Howard-Hill (2008) gives a good introduction to various historical attempts (though broadly ignoring the ESTC and the two previous short title catalogues discussed above, as their stories are relatively familiar (2008, pp. 202–203)). The Japanese National Diet Library (2004) also provides a quick overview of previous incunabula catalogues.


It is obvious that a number of attempts have been made to list and provide descriptions of early printed books (at least those published in English). While the English Short Title Catalogue is probably the most complete, it, like the other attempts, suffers from ghosts, typographical mistakes, and other problems. However, as time progresses, it can be hoped that at least the ESTC will improve in quality and result in a more complete and error free bibliography. The Universal Short Title Catalogue shows the most promise for works not published in English.


Anonymous. (1999). Hi-tech short title catalogue. History Today, 49(2), 3.

Centre for the History of the Media, University College Dublin. (2010). The Iberian Book Project. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from

Daines, J. G., & Nimer, C. L. (2012). U. S. Descriptive Standards for archives, historical manuscripts, and rare books. Presented at the IFLA World Library and Information Congress, Helsinki, Finland. Retrieved from

Edwards, A. (2008). English Short Title Catalogue - history. Text. Retrieved May 19, 2013, from

Edwards, A. (2011). English Short Title Catalogue - introduction. Text. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from

English Short-Title Catalog. (2010, September 16). Retrieved May 19, 2013, from

Howard-Hill, T. H. (2008). W. J. Cameron and the universal catalogue of British literature. Script and Print, 32(4), 197–2011.

Kefford, B. (n.d.). English Short Title Catalogue. Text. Retrieved May 19, 2013, from

LaGuardia, C. (2004). Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Library Journal, 129(9), 123–124.

McKitterick, D. (2005). “Not in STC”: Opportunities and Challenges in the ESTC. The Library, 6(2), 178–194. doi:10.1093/library/6.2.178

McMullin, B. J. (2002). Getting aquainted with EEBO. Bulletin (Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand), 26(3-4), 220–230.

National Diet Library. (2004). History of Incunabula Studies | Incunabula - Dawn of Western Printing. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from

Nimer, C. L., & Daines, J. G. (2013). The Development and Application of U.S. Descriptive Standards for Archives, Historical Manuscripts, and Rare Books. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 51(5), 532–549. doi:10.1080/01639374.2013.764373

ProQuest. (n.d.). About EEBO. Retrieved May 21, 2013, from

Queen’s University Library. (2006a, August 9). Early English books, 1475-1640: Pollard & Redgrave collection. Retrieved May 19, 2013, from

Queen’s University Library. (2006b, August 9). Early English books, 1641-1700: Wing collection. Retrieved May 21, 2013, from

Rare Books and Special Collections Group. (2007). Guidelines for the Cataloguing of Rare Books. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from

Sammons, C. A. (1994). Donald Wing’s Catalogue. Nota Bene: News from the Yale Library, 8(1). Retrieved from

Smits, J., & Fell, T. (2011). Early Printed Atlases: Shaping Plato’s “Forms” into Bibliographic Descriptions. Journal of Map & Geography Libraries, 7(2), 184–210. doi:10.1080/15420353.2011.566840

Tabor, S. (2007). ESTC and the Bibliographical Community. The Library, 8(4), 367–386. doi:10.1093/library/8.4.367

The British Library. (2005, October 27). British Library - Incunabula Short Title Catalogue. Text. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from

The British Library. (2012, July 17). Incunabula Short Title Catalogue. Text. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from

Thomas, S. (1996). Quality in Bibliographic Control. Retrieved from

Universal Short Title Catalogue Project. (n.d.). Universal Short Title Catalogue Project: The Universal Short Title Catalogue Project is an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project based at the University of St Andrews. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from

1I believe that creating a bibliography of non-printed books would be very difficult. For one, it would be very difficult to decide which copy is the ideal copy.

2Which is also an issue for works published today; many electronic titles and print on demand titles lack an ISBN, partly because of the cost, and partly because the authors/publishers do not realise they are useful.

3The British Library’s Automated Information SErvice

4The Research Libraries Information Network, now defunct.

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