Rare Books in Scotland Bibliographical Format and Cataloguing Workshops at the National Library of Scotland

In November, we had the pleasure of attending two half-day workshops at the National Library of Scotland’s George IV Bridge Building in Edinburgh.

The first workshop, held in the morning, was led by Robert Betteridge, Curator of Rare Books and Music Collections, and was about Bibliographical Format, an important subject for the rare books librarian since a basic knowledge of this is essential for identifying and cataloguing rare books, and is the basis for understanding unusual copy-specific features.

Using examples from their Library’s collections, we were shown how best to describe the physical make-up of a printed book, focusing on the hand-press period of 1500-1800 when printing presses were worked by hand to produce printed material.

We were encouraged to study the basics of paper manufacturing and given a vocabulary to describe what we were viewing.  Here we take a look of some of these definitions.

Paper features

Differences between laid and wove paper 

This depended on the type of mould that was used to produce a sheet of paper.  This mould would have been constructed of a rectangular wooden frame covered with either a laid or later on, a wove wire surface to create a smoother finish. The laid mould consisted of close lines of wires to create a ribbed chain lines with a cover of closely placed parallel laid wires to form the sieve through which the water drains.  According to Gaskell, in his book  A new introduction to bibliography Oxford: 1972  (Bibliog B20 1972-G). until the mid-18c, all moulds were of the laid (chain and wire) pattern, wire mesh attached to frame, later on, wove paper was introduced but use was taken up slowly by papermakers.

(Partially taken from http://baph.org.uk/reference/glossary.html glossary of papermaking terms)

Watermarks and their countermarks also aid in identifying bibliographical formats too. These were fashioned in wire, and sewn to the surface of the mould to show an image in the paper.


The format of the book would differ depending on the folding of printed sheets to make a gathering. We were given the opportunity to practice folding a sheet of paper to make an octavo gathering.  Other formats include;

folio: sheets folded once on longer side; two leaves and four pages to a sheet; vertical chain-lines in laid paper

quarto: pairs of four-page forms folded twice; four-leaf, eight-page gatherings with horizontal chain lines in laid paper

octavo: three folds, eight leaves, sixteen pages

duodecimo: folded twice along second dimension and three times across the shorter; twelve leaves, twenty-four pages

  common name 1o (No folding)

vertical chain lines

horizontal chain lines


  folio 2o (Folded once)


  quarto 4 o(folded again;4to)  


  octavo 8 o (folded again;8vo)


sextodecimo sixteens 16 o  


long duodecimo long twelves long 12 o


duodecimo twelves 12 o  



Signature collations are a short-hand way of recording the make-up of a book: how the leaves are folded and formed into quires or gatherings using a 23-letter alphabet (less I/J, U/V, W)

The mirror of Alchimy – Note use of catchwords and the signature noting collation (Sp Coll Ferguson Ag-e.26)

The mirror of Alchimy – Note use of catchwords and the signature noting collation (Sp Coll Ferguson Ag-e.26)

Catchwords were used to help the printer and bookbinder ensure the book was put together in the right order from the printing press to being bound. The catchword would be found at the bottom of a page and be the first word of the following page

Deckle edges are rough, uneven, wavy line at the edge of the paper where the ‘stuff’ (that is to say, paper pulp from the vat) has seeped between the deckle and mould.  These can be easily identified in a laid paper books which have been uncut, as the deckle edge remains.

Cancels – A bibliographic term for a replaced leaf in a printed book

R W Chapman, ‘Cancels’ (1930) coined some terminology for narrow use, of leaves:

cancellans (-antia) refers to the new corrected leaf, the replacement [cancel/cancels, cancel leaf/leaves]

cancellandum (-anda) refers to the leaf intended to be excised or replaced [cancelland/cancellands]

cancellatum (-ata) refers to the leaf that has been excised or replaced [cancelled leaf/leaves]

Some indications of cancellation can be found with the presence of special signatures or stubs, however they can be hard to spot.

 A detailed bibliography of books for reference and further reading was also provided.

Ioannis Trittenhemii  liber octo questionum – Roger Ascham ownership inscription on titlepage (Sp Coll Ferguson Af-f.60)

Ioannis Trittenhemii liber octo questionum – Roger Ascham ownership inscription on titlepage (Sp Coll Ferguson Af-f.60)

 After lunch the afternoon session was on rare book cataloguing and was led by James Mitchell, curator. Following an introduction and helpful information on useful reference sources, with book in hand we looked at different production and copy-specific features. Each member of the group was given a book to catalogue, followed by discussion of the resulting catalogue records. We considered different definitions of what is meant by a “rare book”, handling, basics of cataloguing, production features (such as errata, cancels and advertisement leaves) and copy-specific features (e.g. binding, bookplates, ownership inscriptions and imperfections) which book historians are increasingly interested in since they can reveal so much about reading and ownership history as well as book use.

Bookplate of Charles Dickens from Francis Douce: The Dance of Death Sp Coll Gemmell 34

Bookplate of Charles Dickens from Francis Douce: The Dance of Death (Sp Coll Gemmell 34)

 As might be expected from the NLS the training was very well-organized and presented and the accompanying materials were also of high quality. There was the opportunity to ask questions throughout and detailed and helpful answers were always given. We both found the workshops stimulating and informative and our attendance very worthwhile.

 Fiona Neale and Louise Robertson

(Special Collections)

Categories: Library, Special Collections

Tags: , , ,

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