Cataloguing Antiquarian Books

In this blog post, volunteer Lucy tells us about the fascinating process of cataloguing our historically important antiquarian book collection.

The Jesuits in Britain Archive holds an important collection of sixteenth and seventeenth century theological books, together with bibles, prayer books, and historical works, and for the past three months I have spent one day a week working on them, examining each in turn and preparing a list of them for the Archivist. Books are not, strictly speaking, archival material, but like most archival repositories, the Jesuits in Britain Archive holds many items which are not archival. The boundaries between different Special Collections are often blurred, and archivists, librarians and curators need to know how to care for items and collections outside their own professional area. I was very happy to have this experience of listing antiquarian books.

There are nearly two thousand books in the collection, and I have managed to list about 150 of them. It is a slow process. First I clean the book using an archival brush (which looks a bit like a make-up brush), as they can get dusty, especially on the top of the text-block. I then measure the book, which will help make future decisions about shelving. I note down the name of the author (when known, some of the works are anonymous, and others pseudonyms) and the title in full. The titles can be extremely long, and are very often in Latin, which is sometimes abbreviated. I expand these abbreviations, but use square brackets to show that I have done this.

Most of the books state where and by whom they were printed. Often this is pleasingly descriptive, for example a few of the books were printed in the 1680sby ‘Matthew Turner, at the signe of Lamb at High-Holborn’ (ALBSI/A/91, ALBSI/A/119, ALBSI/A/120). Another, printed in 1615 in Antwerp was printed by ‘The Plantin Establishment, at the shop of the Widowand Sons of John Moretus’. A surprising number were printed by women, often, as in this case, widows of printers who appear to have carried on their late husband’s business. Many of the books were published abroad, often at Douai, Trier, St Omer or Antwerp since the works were banned in England due to their Catholic subject-matter. Some of the books which were printed in England state that they were published elsewhere, for instance Maria Jesus Joseph, was published in 1682 in England, but states Amsterdam as its place of publication on the title page(ALBSI/A/150). This is also an example of a book which is published anonymously, the two authors identifying themselves by their initials only, A.C. and T.V. and by the fact they were Benedictine monks.

The bindings of the books vary from fine leather affairs, with elaborate gold tooling, to cheap parchment wrappers, the paperbacks of their day. Many of the bindings are contemporary to the text, but a fair number of the volumes have been rebound. When the binding is very damaged, or missing its spine, the original construction of the book can be seen, where all the gatherings of paper are stitched together with waxed string. Sometimes parts of earlier books are re-used in the bindings. For example, the copy of William Camden’s Britannia, dating from 1590, has parts of a much earlier printed work used as flyleaves. This appears to be a text of classical history, but I have not been able to identify it.

Most of the books have numbered pages, but some have numbered folios. This is where instead of each side of the paper being numbered, the sheet has just one number. The numbering usually extends only as far as the core text of the work, with any appendices and indices being unnumbered. When several works are bound together into one book they are often, but not always, numbered separately. All this is entered on the spreadsheet, and is evidence about the history of that book -- especially when works have been bound together, they may have previously been separately bound but at some later time, someone decided to bind them into one volume.


One of the most time-consuming yet interesting parts of the project is finding out about previous owners of the books. Some of the owners stuck bookplates into the books. These vary from plain to lavish armorial plates where the books have had aristocratic former owners. A book that was previously owned by an institution may have a stamp in (many came from Mount St Marys, which has a distinctive oval stamp, often with purple ink). A former owner may have written his or her name in, either at the beginning as a mark of ownership, but surprisingly often just as a sort of doodle, or perhaps as penmanship practice. It helps to know a little about the history of the Jesuits in Britain, as some of the books have enigmatic entries such ‘Residence of St Winifred’ or ‘Residence of St Ignatius’, which indicate that at some point in the seventeenth or eighteenth century the books were used by the Jesuits in North Wales or in East Anglia.

The final part of the process is to assign the book an identification number, to decide on the conservation of the volume (Low, Medium or Urgent), tie it up with tape if it needs it, and replace it on the shelf.

Some of the Antiquarian Books Lucy has catalogued

This project will take a long time to complete, but when the books have all been listed we will know exactly what works are in the Antiquarian Book Room, and taken with all the other information the list holds, the Archivist will be able to make informed decisions about the care the books need and how they should be housed. The project is a fascinating one, and I am very pleased to have been able to spend some time on it. The experience of handling large numbers of antiquarian books has been invaluable, seeing and feeling the differences between them, discovering the different construction techniques, starting to recognise the way that one printer set his type compared to another, and learning a little of the history of each.

Lucy Vinten Mattich, Volunteer

If you are interested in the Jesuits in Britain Archives’ antiquarian book collection, or would like to know more about our work in general, please contact us.

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