Getting to know the Copac libraries 2 – York Minster, antiquarian material, and local notes

One of the major assets of the Copac libraries is their collection of pre-1801 works. A (very rough) search on Copac, limiting the date to 1000-1800 returns 4.3 million results, which represents 1/8 of Copac’s total number of records. Even allowing for a 10% erroneous return rate, that is an awful lot of books. And, in this case, it is actual items, rather than works, expressions or manifestations (to borrow from FRBR ), as Copac doesn’t de-duplicate pre-1801 materials.

You may wonder why. With early published material, it can be very difficult to establish whether items are the same work, let alone expression or manifestations. Titles were often not uniform, and even titles that appear uniform can disguise differences in content. A slight difference in title or publication details can indicate a range of scenarios – from exactly the same content with a typo on the title page, to entirely different content. The ISBD(A) recognises this, and says in the introduction that

The aim of the rare book librarian here is not only description of an antique, but, more important, the clarification of the transmission of the text and the “points” which distinguish editions
[ISBD(A):  International Standard Bibliographic Description for Older Monographic Publications (Antiquarian)
Second revised edition

It is not just differences in the official content of the book that make items unique.   Librarians hate people writing in books. It stirs some primeval anger – unless, of course, the person doing the writing is famous. Or dead. Preferably both. Many antiquarian books contain annotations and additions that make all the difference for researchers. What makes this Chetham’s Library copy of Serrani’s Plato different from others? Well, it could be former owner Ben Jonson’s name on the title page…  (which excited me and Lisa very much when we visited!).

Libraries indicate the presence of these in local notes fields in their catalogue record, and Copac preserves, displays, and indexes these local notes. This means that all of the effort that librarians put into creating this valuable information directly affects the finadability of an item.

A fantastic example of this high-quality cataloguing is that of the playbills collection held at York Minster. Librarian John Powell is including details of all plays and actors mentioned on the bills, building up a fantastic picture of eighteenth and nineteenth century theatre. A Copac search for ‘Theatre Royal York’, limited to ‘York Minster’ shows the level of detail being added. When I spoke to John recently, he highlighted how crucial this level of detail was for the resources to be used to their fullest potential. Having such a collection, catalogued with such care, and available for discovery on Copac, is a real asset to the research community.

While I’m getting to know the collections in the Copac community better as time goes on, the people who know them best are the librarians who look after them.  By talking to these librarians, I’m learning more about the collections, and how best to promote use of them. Stay tuned for future thoughts.
PS You may also be wondering why 1801 is chosen as the cut-off date for antiquarian books. So was I!  The answer lies in the industrial revolution, and the invention of printing presses that were machine-, rather than man-powered. (yes, yes, I know… if you have a more authoritative source, please feel free to add it to the comments.)

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