Rare Books Blog

April 21, 2012

One of my most pleasurable duties as a rare book librarian is reading the catalogues sent by rare book dealers. Each book’s listing is typcally accompanied by a narrative description that describes the book’s context and significance. The best book descriptions do more than merely tout a book or manuscript to potential buyers. They are nuggets of bibliographical and historical scholarship, and models of lively, concise writing. Much of my early training consisted of reading rare book dealer catalogues, and I still learn from them.

Thanks to the Law Library’s online catalog, MORRIS, and to the cooperation of book dealers, I have been attaching dealers’ descriptions to our catalog records for the books.

When you look at the record of an individual title in MORRIS, you will see a button on the left side of the screen, labeled “Add a review”. Those with a Yale ID and password can add a review of the title. If a review has been added, you will see a headline under the “Add a review” button that is a link to the review. Click the headline link and the review pops up in a window. (Note that the display works better in Firefox than in Internet Explorer.)

Since January 2008, I have been adding rare book dealers’ descriptions as “reviews” in MORRIS. For example, look at the record for Iustinianae constitutiones civiles (Bologna, 1608). Click the link, “The judicial system in Bologna,1608” and you will see the following description:

“Attractive and rare set of decrees concerning the functioning of the judiciary in the papal city of Bologna. These city statutes were promulgated by the Pope’s legate, Cardinal Benedetto Giustiniani (1554-1621). Despite the issuing authority, the constitutions (a word indicating legislation of the highest level) are entirely non-religious in content, relating to civil law justice in the city. They shed considerable light into how courts worked in Bologna. Included are instructions on cases involving poor people; rules for notaries; the keeping of registers; seizures of property; taking of suspects; payment of officers; expert witnesses; and the governing of appeals. Pages 192-198 comprise papal edicts on the salaries of Bolognese judges and notaries.” – Leo Cadogan Rare Books (Dec. 2011)

The description adds value to our catalog. It records a wealth of information about the book that would be impossible to include in the online catalog record.

I follow these guidelines:

  • I must first obtain the dealer’s permission to use the descriptions for all books and manuscripts the dealer sells to me. The descriptions are the dealer’s intellectual property and dealers are sensitive (rightly so) about whether and how their descriptions are re-used. I assure the dealer that I will understand if he or she prefers to refuse permission.
  • I enter a dealer’s descriptions only for the books and manuscripts I buy from that dealer.
  • I copy the description verbatim, editing only for length, punctuation, and spelling.
  • I enclose the description in quotations, and I attribute the description to the dealer, including the catalogue (or if not in a catalogue, by the date it was quoted to me).
  • I never include the price.

To date I have added over 500 descriptions by over forty dealers from across the U.S. and Europe. I hope you find them as useful and educational as I do.

Rare Book Librarian

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