The Joys of Bibliography

“Once you have approached the mountains of cases in order to mine the books from them and bring them to the light of day – or, rather, of night – what memories crowd in upon you!”

— Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”

This year I’ve been teaching a series of masterclasses on descriptive bibliography to Stirling postgrads. Many scholars – not to mention the general public – would think this a pretty dull thing to teach, maybe even a duller thing to learn, but in explaining to students how to methodically, thoughtfully, and lovingly describe the books in front of them, I find my own delight in what I do renewed.

Leighton Library 2D8. Biblia swieta (Amsterdam, 1660).

Too often in the modern world our eyes slip across the things in front of us, quickly scanning a news article on our phone, speed-reading through a set text before a seminar, glancing hurriedly across supermarket shelves for the item we need. Bibliography forces us to slow down, to concentrate our attention on a single object, the book, and to allow ourselves to perceive that object – slowly, intensively, fully. When we log on to EEBO or Google Books to check a citation in an early printed book, we engage so shallowly with its digital surrogate, treating it like a mere information repository – and, perhaps, this is how many people think of books – but when we study a book with the tools of bibliography we see it for itself, not as a means to an end, but as an object for contemplation which is as it is.

Binding waste from Leighton Library 5C26. Medicina Salernitana (Frankfurt, 1595).

And when we do this, we open ourselves to the quiet joy of understanding. As we pursue the meditative processes of pagination and collation, of identifying the format, checking the chain lines, watching the running titles, we understand the book as a movement through time, from the compositor’s stick to the forme to the sheet to the folded page to the sewn quires to the battered and stained but undiminished object we now hold in our hands. The book, no matter how quietly it sits on the shelf, is always in motion and we are privileged to discover that motion in our contemplation. When we perceive this, our understanding shifts. We lay aside facile beliefs in the repetitive uniformity of mechanical reproduction and we know that the book, this book, is perfectly unique, an arrow fired from the past into the future.

Teaching reminds me of these things, which I might otherwise come to take for granted, and that reminder is a delight. The joys of bibliography are quiet ones, yet deep.

(c) 2021 Kelsey Jackson Williams

3 responses to “The Joys of Bibliography”

  1. This rings true. When I taught an intro to grad studies at Edinburgh in the early 70s, someone else taught the descriptive bibliography unit, but from ?1979 on, at South Carolina I taught the grad intro course including descriptive bibliography, and increasingly book history. After I moved to the library in 1995, and the then English chair decided someone else would teach new graduate students critical theory instead, I taught a full course in rare books and descriptive bibliography for the library school, which in time became two different courses (open of course to English postgrads), till 2015, when there were library colleagues to continue them. It is a different teaching experience, and a different experience for the students from their other classes, but it is true you see new things every time you handle the books themselves.


  2. By the way, Kelsey, I really love this. meant to say yesterday. Please keep me posted when you post. Or is there an automatic way for me to know. ? >


    1. Thanks, Bill! There should be an option to subscribe for weekly updates at the bottom of my home page.


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