A behind the scenes look into cataloguing rare materials

Museum of the Order of St John Adriana Celmare - Project Librarian

Special collections libraries, like the one currently housed in the West Tower of the Museum of the Order of St John, often hold a wealth of rare and unique materials such as early printed books, manuscripts, maps, historic documents, journals or ephemera. While these items may be of great value to researchers and to members of the general public, the collections often remain “hidden” and inaccessible to users if they are left unprocessed and uncatalogued. 


Books and manuscripts in the Historic Library

This is when rare book cataloguer can help. By participating in special cataloguing projects, the librarian(s) will assess the collections and create bibliographic records for the materials in them according to international rules and standards of bibliographic description. In the case of the Museum of the Order of St John in London, I was the person selected to catalogue its Historic Library and in this blog post, I’m going to share some insights into the work that I do behind-the-scenes. 

The first thing that is worth mentioning about historic collections is that all materials printed or produced before the 19th century are considered to be “special collections”. This is because they were created during the hand-press era, before the invention of mechanized printing presses based on steam power. In particular, volumes that have been bound before the 1800s and still retain their original binding are treated as unique handcrafted objects, since no two bindings can be genuinely identical for early printed books.  

This means that rare book cataloguers often do judge books by their covers and treat them more like physical objects than just simple carriers of text. That is why, when I start cataloguing a historic item, the first thing that I look at is its binding and general physical appearance. The binding will often provide me with clues about when and where a volume was produced and published. Since binding materials and their decorating styles are specific to certain periods in time and/or countries, it is often possible to estimate the approximate age of a volume just by looking at its covers.   


15th century German calf binding with metal clasp

After that, I search for the title page of the material analysed, whether that is a book, a journal or any another historical document. The title page is the most important element in identifying and describing a resource since it contains information about its title, author/s, editors, printers and publishers, as well as the place and date of publication. In the next stage, I look for additional details such as: number of pages in the book, presence of illustrations, maps, tables, the physical size of the volume, the text material, etc. The older a book is, the more detailed its description has to be.   


15th century woodcut from the German incunable Stabilimenta Militum Hierosolymitanorum

By checking an international union catalogue such as, for example WorldCat, which offers free access to the collections of 15,600 libraries in 107 countries I can determine the rarity of the copy in my hand. Then I perform what is called a “subject analysis”, that is, an evaluation of the contents of the material and based on the main topics identified, I assign one or more “subject headings” from an authorized thesaurus such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings files. All the information collected is recorded into a catalogue record, which is a standard bibliographic description of a resource according to international rules  and conventions that ensure that all materials are described uniformly for better user retrieval.


Example of a catalogue record with assigned subject headings (in blue)

The next step is identifying the individual characteristics of the copy in my hands. This is a very important stage in the description of early printed resources and manuscripts, since the specific details of a certain copy are often the ones that give its unique and special character. For example, the armorial binding of a book can point to the identity of its first owner, since the coat of arms of the owner will often be stamped on the covers of the volume.   

Other signs of ownership, such as inscriptions, autographs, stamps and/or bookplates present in the item can also help establish its ownership history through time. This is the part that we call provenance research and it often involves quite a bit of digging around and in some cases, doing some determined detective work. It’s also the part that I enjoy most, since I feel it connects me to the former owners and readers of a material and helps me uncover stories about their lives, interests and favourite pastimes. 


Inscriptions of former owners and bookplate of St John’s Gate Library. LDOSJ H4 Image©MOSJ/Matt Spour 2021

In the end, even though cataloguing books and other items has a lot to do with following rules and conventions of bibliographic description, special collections cataloguing, in particular, is all about discovering the unusual, the unique and sometimes the unexpected in our historic collections. 



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