What is copy specific information?

Most books printed in the hand-press period (usually prior to about 1800) are unique in some way.

Many of these idiosyncrasies arise from the treatment and care the books may have had throughout their history, in passing through the hands of successive owners.

Differences between copies from the same print run (edition) may also occur from the complex nature of the printing process – variant readings result from “stop press” corrections being made, for example, leading to subtle differences between copies.

If you look at any two copies of an early book, you will always find differences! These differences are known as copy specific features. In describing rare books, we pay particular attention to these features, looking in particular at:

  • Bindings
  • Evidence of previous ownership (bookplates, presentation inscriptions etc)
  • Evidence of previous use (manuscript annotations/corrections etc)
  • Embellishment (added decoration/illustrations)
  • Insertions such as letters, press cuttings and notes
  • Variant readings (indicating what ‘state’ the book may be of an edition)
  • Imperfections such as missing pages/or parts added from other books

Why is it important?

Book history is an exciting area of research that has been growing in importance; it is now realised that studying books in detail, and understanding what has happened to them over time, can give us direct access to the past. So early printed books are not simply texts - they are cultural objects that are silent witnesses to the time from which they have come.

The marks that previous owners and readers have left are particularly interesting and may help in tracing the reception of texts over time, or even indicate the growth of literacy. Books were expensive to make and own, so studying patterns of book ownership can chart the development of economic growth and changes in the market for material objects.

So the kind of questions book history researchers may ask when looking at copy specific details may include:

  • Who was this book made for? Is it expensively or cheaply produced? Who might have owned it originally?
  • Is this book a working copy or a status symbol? How has it been looked after? How has it been bound? Has it been decorated?
  • Is the binding contemporary or has it been replaced by a later owner? If so, why?
  • Is there any evidence that this book has been read – if so, by whom? Is there any indication of what they thought about it?
  • Is there any indication of a contemporary reader’s engagement with this text?
  • Have successive readers left comments? Is there any evidence that reactions to the text have changed over time?
  • Is there any attempt to update the text or add to it or personalise it?
  • Has the text been altered in any way? Is this censorship?
  • Are there any insertions? Have they got anything to do with the book? What can they tell us about how the owner used the book?
  • Can I compare different copies of the same edition and trace patterns in book ownership/use?
  • Are there variants in the text? If so, why did the printer have to make changes? Is this actually the text that the author intended should be printed?

We hope that the inclusion of copy specific details in our records will help to inform researchers about those books in our collections that may help to answer such questions.

What now?

Search for copy specific details in our collections by using the rare books search. We have also provided some guidance to searching for this information in our records .