A Bibliographical Alphabet

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Bibliography, in the sense of the history and description of books, uses a number of words which are not common in everyday life, so we thought some of our followers might find this A-Z useful. Words in italics are further explained under their initial letter.

A is for Aldines. Aldus Manutius, (1449/50-1515) was one of the most famous printers ever, and the inventor of italic type. The Edward Worth Library has a number of Aldines (as volumes printed by his press are known), and has an online exhibition about them here: https://aldine.edwardworthlibrary.ie.

D&C colophon

Colophon of “The marvellous loves of Daphnis and Chloe” (shelfmark OLS X-4-121)

B is for bifolium – a piece of parchment or paper folded in half to make two leaves (four pages).

C is for colophon. This is the page which gives the details of the printer and, sometimes, the date. It used to be the last printed page in a book, but the information is now more often found on the title page verso.

D is for duodecimo. This is the smallest book size, made by folding one large sheet of paper (the standard size produced by paper mills was 22 ½ inches x 17 ½ inches) into twelve leaves (24 pages). (Smaller books exist, but not generally made by this method.)

E is for endpapers. These often decorative papers are the size of an opening, half pasted onto the board of a book and the other half free. The front endpaper is referred to as ‘f.e.p.’ in booksellers’ catalogues.

Pooh endpaper

Front endpaper of the first edition of Winnie-the-Pooh (shelfmark OLS B-7-195)

F is for fore-edge. This is the opposite side of a book from the spine. Occasionally it is decorated or, if the book was in a 16th-century library it might have a shelfmark or the title written on it. See our blogpost about some of the examples in our collection.


G is for gathering. When a large sheet of paper is printed, folded and sewn into a book, all the leaves from that sheet of paper make up one gathering.

H is for half-title. Not all books have these, but sometimes there are two pages at the beginning of a book bearing the title. The half-title comes first and usually has no other information. The title given here may be an abbreviation. The full title page generally has the author, often the printer or publisher’s name, and perhaps the name of the series to which the book belongs.

I is for incunabulum or incunable. This is the designation for a book printed before 1500. In December 2017, the department hosted a workshop in which participants could examine some of the incunabula from our collection – read about it here.

J is for dust jacket. On modern hardback books, this is the loose, printed page wrapped around the boards (hence its alternative name of dust wrapper) which gives the title and author and, usually, a summary of the contents and short biography of the author. From the 1820s to 1850s, the jacket was sealed, like a parcel wrap, and disposed of once opened. Few of these remain, but here is an article from the Bodleian Library about one from 1829.

K is for kettle stitch – a method of joining gatherings together before the outer binding is added. It may be an anglicisation of the German ‘Kettelstich’ – ‘Kettel’ meaning a small chain.

kettle stitch

Kettle stitch (centre) joining 10 gatherings

L is for leaf. Just as paper comes from trees, so do many book-related terms. A leaf consists of two pages (recto and verso) back-to-back. See image below.


M is for morocco. Named after the country from which it was originally imported, this is a durable leather made from goat-skin and used for most craft bindings. There’s a very attractive example in this tweet.

N is (cheating slightly here!) for new books in EPB. The full title of the department is Early Printed Books and Special Collections, so the 21st century items fall into the latter category. They include limited editions of up to 500 copies; books signed by the author; fiction, drama and poetry by Irish authors in English; reference books relating to bibliography; and other items which the library deems to be particularly valuable or vulnerable.

O is for opening, which is ‘just what it says on the tin’! When a book is open, there are two pages side by side and these constitute one opening. See image at leaf.

P is for provenance. The value of a book (in monetary or sentimental terms) can be increased by knowing its provenance – that is: who owned it previously, or who gave it to whom. You might enjoy reading this blog post about an enquiry regarding the provenance of two volumes in our collection.

63hh109 quarter-bound

The theatre in life, shelfmark 63.hh.109, is quarter-bound

Q is for quarter-bound. This indicates that the spine of the book is bound in leather but the rest of the binding is cloth. The next step up is half-bound, where the spine and corners are bound in leather.

R is for recto, which is the front of a leaf or the right-hand side of an opening. See image at leaf.

S is for signature. Although this could be a name indicating ownership or provenance, in bibliographical terms it usually means the letter at the foot of the first page of a gathering, which tells the binder where that gathering should come relative to the others. (They are bound in alphabetical order, beginning again at AA if necessary.) The catalogue record for our two copies of the first edition of Newton’s Principia shows the signatures in the ‘Description’ field and uses them to note anomalies in the printing.

T is for tooling. This is a method of decorating a binding by embedding a pattern in the leather. Here is another tweet with an example of morocco, this one with gold tooling.

U is for unopened. When books were made from large sheets of paper folded into gatherings, the folds at the top had to be cut in order for the reader to access the individual pages. When this has not been done, the pages are described as unopened. The binder usually trimmed the outside edges to a uniform size, so this dealt with the folds at the fore-edge. If this has not been done, the book is said to be uncut.

V is for verso, which is the back of a leaf or the right-hand side of an opening. See image at leaf.

W is for watermark. If you hold an old sheet of paper up to the light, you will often see a name or (more usually) a design. This was put in by the papermaker as a trademark. Princeton University has digitised their collection of almost 400 specimens.


A yellowback from our collection, shelfmark OLS B-14-303

X is for xylography, the art of carving a woodblock for printing. This was invented by the Chinese long before any form of print was known in Europe. The surface of a block is carved into shape, with the extraneous wood discarded, then inked. Cloth or paper is then rubbed over it to produce the image or the block is used as a stamp or in a printing press.

Y is for yellowbacks – the name given to the earliest mass-produced, cheap books. They originated in the 1850s and were usually printed in small type and bound in paper boards, often yellow in colour, hence the name. They were mainly fiction and often sold at railway stations to entertain the traveller on a long journey. Unfortunately for collectors, the poor quality of the paper means there are very few still extant in good condition.

Z is (cheating again) for A-Z or alphabet books. These were among the first books aimed at child readers and cover a wide range of subjects. We have quite a number of them in our Pollard Collection of 10,000+ children’s books.