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Bibliography Defined

The object of bibliographical study is to reconstruct for each particular book the history of its life, to make it reveal in its most intimate detail the story of its birth and adventures as the material vehicle of the living word.

–W.W. Greg (from “Bibliography–A Retrospect,” 1945)


Bibliography is the branch of historical scholarship that examines any aspect of the production, dissemination, and reception of handwritten and printed books as physical objects. (“Books” is shorthand here for various kinds of text-bearing objects, including pamphlets and single leaves.) Among the characteristic activities of this field are the following:

analyzing physical clues in specific books in order to reveal details of the underlying production process;

describing the paper (or parchment), letterforms, design, illustrations, structure, binding, and post-publication features of specific books;

determining the relationship among books that carry texts of the same works (texts both verbal and nonverbal, such as musical and choreographic notation);

writing narrative histories and technical studies of papermaking, paper use, ink, handwriting, type faces, type manufacture, book design, typesetting procedures, graphic processes, bookbinding, printing, publishing, bookselling, book collecting, libraries, provenance, and the role of the physical book in society and culture–along with biographies of the persons involved in these stories.

Traditional bibliographical approaches are also now being applied to objects carrying electronic texts. Because textual criticism and scholarly editing are partially dependent on physical evidence, they are included among the concerns of bibliographical societies. But the making of simple lists of books, which usually focuses on the subject matter of their texts, is not within the scope of bibliographical societies except when that subject matter relates to books as physical objects, or when the physicality of the books listed is recognized (as in a record of those produced in a given geographical area). What links all bibliographical pursuits is an understanding of the significance of books as tangible products of human endeavor.

–G. Thomas Tanselle (written for this website, 2020)