Rare Book Guide

Understanding Bookseller Descriptions.

In the words of John Carter, in the preface to the original 1952 edition of his famous ABC for Book Collectors ‘Every specialised profession or pursuit develops its own jargon, much of which is unintelligible to the laymen … Book-collecting is no exception’.

The Rare Book trade is full of expressions you may not have previously encountered, and which can seem somewhat intimidating to new customers or those unfamiliar with rare book cataloguing. Although it may not always seem like it, we are not deliberately trying to confuse and befuddle you, and most descriptions follow industry guidelines, using a long-established terminology, our very own ‘musical notation’ as it were, which, once picked up, will soon become clear and familiar.

At DCRB we take pride in the precision and detail of our cataloguing, which conform to the required standards of the ABA, and so offer up the following brief guide to understanding our rare book descriptions, followed by a glossary of some of the common terms and abbreviations, with links to further more comprehensive guides.

Author and Title.

Descriptions will usually start with the Author, followed by the title of the book which is transcribed as it appears from the title page (including unusual or antiquated spellings), rather than the way it appears on the upper cover of the book, or on the dust-jacket. We tend to put this in capitals, but that is entirely a stylistic choice. Long titles with additional information then follow, and end with the publishing details (i.e. the location/place of publication, and name of publisher) concluding with the date of publication. This last section is known collectively as the imprint. Any information in [square brackets] is not present in the book but was added by us based on bibliographical research. For instance, in the case of an anonymously published work we may add the author’s name in brackets, or perhaps include a subject heading before the author, or in the case of an untitled work such as a photo album. Similarly, if the date is not printed in the book we include that in brackets. Titles sometimes include manuscript additions and these too, will be in brackets.


The most important part, and hopefully the most enjoyable and informative!  It is certainly the bit that as a bookseller I most enjoy, as I get a thrill out of researching each book that comes into stock, and hopefully passing on my enthusiasm about it to you! In this section we will comment upon the edition and any further points of publication interest; how and why the book may be considered rare and important (based upon factors such as publication history, numbers of copies in libraries, how common it is on the market); details about the content of the item and what makes it exciting to us, and why we believe it to be of historical and cultural significance. We endeavour to set each item within their intellectual, scientific, literary, and social context, to explain why they may be considered important and collectable. We endeavour to handle problematic material with sensitivity, and are ever mindful of the impact that such material may have upon our readers, and so will always try to contextualise it appropriately, and will not shy away from acknowledging any explicit and hurtful content. Such works are only ever acquired after much careful thought, research and consideration.

Physical Description:

The physical description then follows in a separate paragraph and is given in italics. Following a well-used trade format, this section includes information about the size of the book, the number of pages, and any illustrations or ‘plates’, and then the actual ‘physical’ condition of the book. As I rule, I will also include in this paragraph important information such as whether the book is signed, or specially bound. Evidence of ownership history (provenance), including inscriptions, signatures, etc, will also be found here. Physical descriptions can therefore be broken down into the following sections:

  • Format: The format is the formal term for a book’s size and shape, most often octavo, quarto, or folio.
  • Pagination or ‘Collation’: ‘the bibliographical description of the physical composition of a book, expressed in a more or less standardised formula’ (Carter). Format is technically included in the definition of collation, but is primarily a record given of the number of leaves in the book. The size of the book determines how the leaves have been gathered together, and is of particular importance to earlier books, those printed during the hand-press era in Europe and North America, roughly 1450-1850, when books were printed with movable type. The addition of errata slips, publisher’s advertisements will be mentioned here.
  • Illustrations: Details are then given about the images or plates found within the book or item (plates were printed separately from the text), and will give details, where known, of the process used to print them (i.e. the type of engraving, or other methods such as lithography).
  • Internal Condition: the next section will give details about the internal condition of the book – whether there are any faults, such as tears, whether the paper has aged (known as ‘foxing’ or ‘browning’), or papers has been affected by water damage, often referred to as ‘dampstaining’.
  • Copy specific additions: Details of any internal manuscript additions such as marginalia, under-linings etc, will then follow.
  • Binding: usually starting with the binding material, and followed by notes on the appearance of the spine and boards, any lettering or decorations on the binding or edges of the text block; and the type of endpapers. The binding’s age and whether it is original or contemporary with the book’s publication is noted. If the spine has been re-backed or replaced it will be mentioned here, and the external condition will be discussed.
  • Provenance: the final section. At this point I will note whether it is a presentation copy, whether there are any further manuscript additions such as inscriptions, book-plates, or evidence of previous readership and ownership.
  • Formal rating: Taking into consideration all of the above, the physical description usually ends with some form of rating. By its very nature, this is somewhat subjective, although again follows industry guidelines. They do vary slightly between dealers such as myself, who deal more with older material, as opposed to those handling Modern Firsts. However, they can be broadly defined, in order of excellence, as:
    • Fine: Most often used for late-19th and 20th-century books, and common in the Modern Firsts market, and means that the copy is in excellent condition, essentially the same condition as it was when first printed, including the dust jacket if it was published with one. This rating is applied less often to books published prior to the 19th century — a copy can have certain minor flaws and still be considered fine, but it does need to be a superb example of its type.
    • Excellent:A copy with only one or two minor flaws, such as light rubbing at the extremities of the covers, ownership signature, faded spine panel, or slight toning of the leaves. It is considered to be an exceptionally well-preserved copy, particularly a book in a good quality binding. A copy of a modern first book that is in perfect condition but missing the jacket can also be rated as excellent.
    • Very Good/Good:Although such copies will have some faults, and may look more ‘read’ than excellent copies, the binding is sound, or has been well restored, and the contents are generally clean and well preserved. Common faults may include minor tears, mild foxing, or mild/faint dampstaining. For Modern Firsts, ‘good’ is viewed more critically.
    • Poor/Reading Copy only:The lowest rating applied to books, for copies that may not even be in a suitable condition for reading. DCRB policy is not to handle such copies, and will only do so in exceptional circumstances, when we feel it to be of the utmost rarity and importance.


Bibliographical References:

Most rare book descriptions conclude with important bibliographical references (though the order in which these are placed in a dealer’s description can vary). These are usually given in order of relevance to the book under discussion. Specialist annotated handlists of say the author or the subject matter will be given first, followed by references which may then discuss the wider topic. The references are usually given in a shorten form: for a more detailed list of my frequently used bibliographies please click here. We will always cite any sources used.

We hope that you enjoy reading our book descriptions, and do our best to describe each book’s condition as accurately as possible. We can provide high-resolution photographs to assist in making purchasing decisions. Please feel free to contact us if you have additional questions about a book’s condition or would like to see more photos.


The ultimate guide to book collecting, John Carter’s famous ABC for Book Collectors “Like all good reference books, the ABC for Book Collectors conveys much in a little, sets limits to its subject and keeps within them, and – saving grace – treats that subject with individuality as well as authority, in a style at once concise, forthright and witty. It is, in short, a masterpiece, whose merits are acknowledged by the fact that it has never, in forty years, been out of print.” (Nicolas Barker in his introduction to the revised edition of the “ABC for Book Collectors”, Oak Knoll Press 1995)

The ABA Terms of the Trade provides a more detailed and technical explanation for those wishing to learn more.

Glossary  of some of the common terms and abbreviations – an abridged version of the fuller guide produced by ABA Past President Laurence Worms, owner of Ash Rare Books, and author of Cataloguing for Booksellers. 

Further Study