Descriptive Bibliography

Course Information

Instructor: Aaron Pratt
Location: Los Angeles, California
Mode: In-person
Dates: August 5–9, 2024
Tuition: $1200.00


This introductory course is intended for students who wish to increase their understanding of the physical descriptions of printed books, especially those produced in the handpress period, as well as books printed during the industrial press period up to approx. 1900.  The course accommodates special collections librarians and catalogers, book collectors, booksellers, graduate students, scholars, bibliographers and other members of the book community who wish to gain thorough comprehension of book structures and bibliographical descriptions and to develop their ability to write their own descriptions of printed books.

The course will introduce students to the principles and concepts of descriptive bibliography and develop their ability to accurately understand and describe the format, collation, pagination, and other aspects of the physical book.  The concept of “ideal copy” will be discussed and analyzed, as will the distinction of editions, issues, states, and impressions.  Also considered will be the accurate transcription of title-page, colophon, and other internal information; the identification of paper and watermarks, type, and illustrative contents; and the treatment of other features and circumstances of printing and distribution.

Each class will involve a combination of lectures and in-class exercises, both supervised and independent (largely the examination of printed books and the writing of bibliographical descriptions for progressively complex books), as well as the consideration of published descriptive bibliographies and representative examples of books described within those published works.


Requirements: In their personal statement, applicants should describe the extent of their background in bibliography, the nature of their interest in the subject, and how they expect to apply what they learn. Students must read the assigned texts in advance of the course and bring copies of Bowers and Gaskell with them to each class; they are strongly encouraged to purchase their own copies of the basic texts.

Readings: (please read them in the following order)

  • Tanselle, G. Thomas. “A Description of Descriptive Bibliography.” Studies in Bibliography 45 (1992): 1–30.
  • Gaskell, Philip. A New Introduction to Bibliography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972; corrected ed. 1974; paperback ed., 1995, Oak Knoll Press.
  • Bowers, Fredson. Principles of Bibliographical Description. Princeton, 1949; reprinted 1994 and 2023 (with an introduction by G. Thomas Tanselle), Oak Knoll Press.


  • John Carter. ABC for Book Collectors. London 1952; 8th ed. by John Carter and Nicolas Barker. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press; London: British Library, 2004



Years taught by Carl Berkout: 2006–2008
Years taught by Bruce Whiteman2009–2014
Years taught by Gerald Cloud: 2013, 2015, 2017, 2019, 2021


Completion of this course helps to meet requirements for one of the following certificate requirements:

  • the Descriptive Bibliography requirement for Certificate in Rare Books and Manuscripts
  • 1 of 2 elective credit courses for Certificate in Librarianship, Activism, and Justice