“Sweet bit of binding” – Cataloguing Puzzles

Sweet blog 1

Manuscript note in pencil in Ferguson Af-b.30. Who would write this?

Explaining what rare book cataloguing entails can be tricky at times, but in the simplest terms you are carrying out two tasks:-

  1. Fully describing an item in order to make it discoverable for researchers, and…
  2. Solving puzzles

There are other tasks which go hand in hand with the above, but if I was ever asked to explain rare book cataloguing in 15 words or less, the description above would be a pretty good attempt.

The discoverable part can involve:-

  • Tracing authorship of the whole or parts of a work where it is unclear, in order to enable researchers to focus on a particular author, editor, translator, commenter, illustrator, bookseller, etc.
  • Correct and consistent transcription of title and publication information (often extremely tricky with early Latin and Gothic script texts) to assist in locating rare and useful works and their various states
  • Modernising language as a cross referencing tool and including variant forms of this information for the contemporary scholar who may not know their pockes from their pox
  • Applying subject classifications to texts for broader access
  • Pretty much anything else which will provide a logical access route to material

And the puzzle solving? Well, this is harder to pin down as pretty much every item which passes across your desk is unique in some way or other, but in general you are looking at the following broad categories for the majority of books:-

  • Annotations. Who wrote what, when, for whom, about what, in response to whom/what, and why. Giving some sense of context or provenance to scratchy scribbles in Latin can be troublesome, but every little helps
  • Provenance. Every book has its own story and in some cases the history of an item’s ownership is of more research value than the text itself. Knowing who owned an item and when can help identify the authors of annotations, give an insight into renaissance and early modern thought, and trace how knowledge in the form of the printed word was disseminated throughout Europe and the rest of the world
  • Binding. This can reveal a lot about the value placed on a particular work, how heavily it was used, and can tie in with questions of provenance and tracing the route certain works took through different libraries in different countries

So to give a real world example of the solving puzzles part of the process, let’s look at an item from the syphilis project chosen entirely at random¹. This is a French book on syphilis published in Paris in 1767.

Here is the catalogue record for this item as it was before I began:-

Catalogue record for Sp Coll Ferguson Af-b.30 before upgradng.

Catalogue record for Sp Coll Ferguson Af-b.30 before upgrading. Light on details.

Dissertation sur une méthode nouvelle de traiter les maladies vénériennes par des lavemens,. Sp Coll Ferguson Af-b.30.

Dissertation sur une méthode nouvelle de traiter les maladies vénériennes par des lavemens,. Sp Coll Ferguson Af-b.30.

And here is the book itself. From our first glance we can see that this book has an armorial binding. When this work was published in the eighteenth century, books were often sold in plain (read: cheap) publishers boards and the purchaser would then have their new possession rebound (if at all) to their own specification. So we know our book was bought by a member of a noble family and rebound. But which family? Identifying a coat of arms can often be a rather tricky process, but in this case as we scan the book further, someone has helpfully noted ‘Armes de lamoignon’ in ink in a 19th century hand on the front flyleaf.

From this we can quickly check French Wikipedia to make sure this particular noble family exists (it does). In addition, sites like the Folger Shakespeare Library will often have a handy binding image to compare against (again, it does). So we can with certainty (and quickly in this case) conclude our book was at one time owned by a member of la famille de Lamoignon. Thanks 19th century annotator!!

As we look for further notes, we find John Ferguson’s own pencil manuscript ownership inscription “J. Ferguson 25. iii – 95”. Ferguson was extremely thorough in recording the dates he acquired each of his new prizes. So John Ferguson took ownership of this book in 1895. Above this we also see, in pencil, the “sweet bit of binding” note in a similar hand to Ferguson’s.

There are several other notes in pencil and ink by different annotators, which are more than likely booksellers’ notes on price and condition of the item.

When we look at the endpapers, we see our next point of investigation: in Ferguson’s hand a note reading “Hamilton Palace Copy”. Many great libraries have, over the years, been broken up and sold. The Hamilton Palace library consisted of the Library of William Thomas Beckford and that of his son-in-law Alexander Douglas Hamilton, 10th Duke of Hamilton (who, as an aside, was mummified upon his death!). This library was sold at auction commencing June 30th 1882 and concluding May 9th 1884. From Ferguson’s date of acquisition we can see that he did not acquire our book at the sale. Is it possible to pursue this further? Of course!

Of the many libraries dispersed in this manner, that of Hamilton Palace was large enough and noteworthy enough to have been recorded on two occasions against which we can check: a manuscript catalogue of the library held here at Special Collections at MS Gen 1055-1056 and the printed catalogue of the sale itself available at Store 27265. Unfortunately for our investigation, our example book does not appear in either listing, so we have only Ferguson’s (usually reliable) note to substantiate this provenance. Ferguson was an extremely experienced book collector by 1895 and had in fact purchased two items from the Hamilton Palace sale in 1884 through his agent Bernard Quaritch, so we can only assume there was compelling evidence at the time to move him to make this note. In cataloguing terms this means we can certainly note this probable provenance, but will have to do so with caveats.

"Sweet bit of binding" - John Ferguson, 25th March 1895.

“Sweet bit of binding” – John Ferguson. 25th March, 1895.

Finally we come to the note at the top of this blog. I had initially discounted the possibility that the quote appraising the binding had been written by Ferguson. While the handwriting was close to his ownership inscription, it seemed quite a casual and informal phrase for such an academic figure. However, after cataloguing a number of books from his library, and having had the chance to both read first hand his rather quirky sense of humour and become more familiar with his handwriting, I became certain that it was a note made by Ferguson himself. It has been an unexpected pleasure to gain a small appreciation of the man behind the reputation (and beard) as a consequence of this project.

In conclusion, we can say that our book was printed in Paris in 1767 and was purchased by a member of the Lamoignon family (probably Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes given the dates, but without confirmation we list only the family name). According to Ferguson, it then found its way to the library of Hamilton Palace, before being acquired by Ferguson himself. It was then purchased by the University Library in 1921 as part of the Ferguson Collection. All this information was gleaned from the book binding and a few pencil and ink notes.

Alongside this problem-solving process, we have also been filling in numerous discovery fields within the catalogue record to make this item easier for the researcher to find. The catalogue record is now fully descriptive and can be viewed at this link.

You can read more about John Ferguson on his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry. You can also find out about the Ferguson Collection on the Special Collections website.


This post appears as part of a Wellcome Trust funded project to have ca. 250 rare books on syphilis held in Special Collections catalogued to international standards, in order to aid academic research. We will also be creating a web-based teaching resource and hosting an event to promote this collection.

If you would like to know more about the project, or are interested in taking part in any upcoming event, just get in touch (sonny.maley[at]glasgow.ac.uk). There will be further blog posts on the progress of the project over the coming months.


¹ Note: book not chosen at random at all.

Categories: Library, Special Collections

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1 reply

  1. Reblogged this on thislittlethingnamedlife and commented:
    This is so interesting and definitely worth a read! I’m geeking out over this! Library lovin!

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