Cataloguing for Booksellers

cataloguingThere are days when I gasp in admiration at the sagacity, sophistication and sheer scholarship of some of my colleagues in the rare book trade. A perfectly catalogued book is a beautiful thing. There are other days (I am afraid rather more of them) when I weep in despair at the utter ineptitude of so-called booksellers who fail so dismally at this basic task of our trade.

I mean the typical sort of booksellers you find listing their wares on ABE, or the Amateur Bookselling Experience as we have come to think of it.  One of the things I found myself wholly unable to explain over the summer to my delightful intern was why otherwise reputable booksellers continue to list their books there and in so doing lend credibility to a website which should long ago have sunk beneath the weight of the amateurs, charlatans and algorithm-chasers who infest it.  It’s owned by the ‘tax-efficient’ and grasping Amazon, the creation of Jeff Bezos – a man who is alleged once to have instructed one of his minions “to proceed as if your goal is to put everyone selling physical books out of a job” (see Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store”, 2013, p.234).  The minions have been making a fine fist of doing that of course. Where that leaves people who list or buy on Amazon or ABE is for them to decide. As someone else in the book says, “You don’t work with Amazon, you work for them”.

A side-effect of all this is that standards of cataloguing in the book trade are in a spiral of decline. I suppose we all make a start by imitating the examples before us, and as newcomers copy all the sloppy habits of the bulk of the denizens of ABE – of course there are exceptions, but bad money always drives out good, as we all know – there is only one way this can go. I became involved in what might be called remedial work for the ABA some years ago and that time went back to the basics of bibliography and the various sets of rules drawn up by the great libraries of the world, to try to determine an outline guide to best practice.  After a long gestation, this is now about to be published (sixty-four pages of it, with illustrations) – it’s currently at proof stage and out with my friends and colleagues Simon Beattie, Pinda Bryars (Bryars & Bryars), Justin Croft, Roger Gaskell, Angus O’Neill (Omega Bookshop) and of course Pauline Schol (with whom I have been discussing cataloguing all summer), for final checking before it goes to the printers. My deepest thanks are due to them all, but especially to Roger Gaskell, who has manfully been trying to keep me on the bibliographical straight-and-narrow over many years now.

The first batch of copies will be handed out next month to all the students at this year’s York Antiquarian Book Seminar (YABS), where Simon and Justin will once again be teaching. After that it will go on general sale – £10 a copy, plus £1.50 postage in the UK (if you don’t mind it coming in a plain manila envelope rather than full packaging) – part of the proceeds to go to the ABA Benevolent Fund. Let me know if you would like one.

*** The booklet is now on sale on this link:

About Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971. He represented the antiquarian book trade on the (British) National Book Committee from 1993 to 2002 and has been six times an elected member of the Council of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. He was largely responsible for drafting the Association’s Code of Good Practice first introduced in 1997 (and its recent update), served as Honorary Secretary of the Association from 1998 to 2001 and as President from 2011 to 2013. He is a former member of the Council of the Bibliographical Society and continues to serve on the Council of the London Topographical Society. He writes and lectures on various aspects of the history of the book and map trades, and has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London, Reading and Sheffield, as well as at the Bibliographical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Warburg Institute, the National Library of Scotland and at Gresham College and Stationers' Hall. Published work includes the compilation of fourteen ‘lives’ for the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, a number of articles for “The Oxford Companion to the Book” and the chapter on early English maps and atlases for the fourth volume of “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain”. Essays on the British map trade are also appearing in “The History of Cartography” published by the University of Chicago Press. His long-awaited “British Map Engravers”, co-written with Ashley Baynton-Williams, was published to critical acclaim in 2011. He also contributed the numerous biographical notes to Peter Barber’s hugely successful “London : A History in Maps”, co-published by the British Library and the London Topographical Society in 2012.
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11 Responses to Cataloguing for Booksellers

  1. Lars says:

    Hello, this sounds very exciting. I am not a book seller but a collector and I strongly suspect the advice in your book might be very useful in cataloguing my own collection. (Plus, there’s the added general interest of the goings-on of the rare books trade which I find fascinating). How would I go about contacting you to eventually buy a copy?



    I look forward to reading this. I hope you have included a section on descriptive phrases to catch the eye. An example, in Quaritch’s recent list: UNQUESTIONABLY THE BEST COLLECTION OF STEREOGRAMS THAT HAS YET BEEN PRODUCED IN MADRAS Adrian


  3. Jim Makovec says:

    Looking forward to you booklet. It will be fun to see advise on how everyone is doing it wrong. You must have a wonderfully large ego, but I’m sure the advise will be worth seeing.


  4. I’m sorry I didn’t know about this in utero, as it were; as I might have helped. With Kiffer and Needham I was responsible for some fairly deep-ploughing improvements in Sotheby’s (New York) cataloguing ca 1988–94. The Garden catalogue is a good example. I’d be interested to see your work.


    • Thank you for that kind thought. The exercise is intended as much to air the subject and provoke future debate as to provide anything definitive. There will no doubt be any number of improvements to be made. I have been particularly interested in looking at the best library practice and what the book-trade might learn or be able to adapt from that.


  5. Bill Gallagher says:

    By all means – let us know when this becomes available! Best Wishes, Shamrock Books


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