Littera Scripta

Describing Books

First learn the terminology. There are standard terms for the parts of a book, as well as the more common types of damage. A couple of good reference books are John Carter's ABC for Book Collectors, and Glaister's Encyclopedia of the Book.

There are some good glossaries on the web as well, although none are as complete as the above books. See right sidebar for a list of web links.

Once you know what the parts of the book are, you can begin to describe its condition. In the United States, the standard for many years has been that of the now defunct AB Bookman Weekly (an antiquarian book trade magazine).

Be aware though, that practices have changed somewhat in the last few years particularly in the description of modern first editions. AB Bookman standards assume that you are describing both the book and the jacket in a single grade. Currently most dealers describe the book and dust jacket separately thus: F/VG which would indicate a book in fine condition with a very good condition dust jacket. Also note that a simple letter code is not sufficient as a description. You mustspecificallydescribe each defect that has resulted in a grade less than fine.

Try the Independent Online Booksellers Association standards for a somewhat updated view.

Here are the most common codes:

  • AN - As New. This is blindingly perfect. Almost never happens. Most books don't actually make it into a new bookstore in this condition.
  • F - Fine. Sorta normal perfect. No flaws of any kind. No, not even teeny ones.
  • NF - Near Fine. Well, ok, maybe real teeny flaws here. Like the gloss on the dust jacket is a bit off.
  • VG - Very Good. Pretty darned nice. Might have one or two very small flaws. A bit of rubbing on the jacket. Light shelfwear maybe. But nothing that would actually qualify as a major defect.
  • G - Good. A nice solid copy. This is what you would normally expect in a secondhand book. Might have a few defects, but certainly nothing missing, no severe problems.
  • Fair - (no letter code here, ya gotta spell it out). Probably a pretty nasty looking copy. Likely has quite a few defects, tears, dampstains, weak binding etc. But it is complete.
  • Poor - Shoulda gone in the trash.
  • XLib - Ex Library copy. This just means that it has been in a library. Will have library markings. The condition should be described as well. But XLibmustalways be noted as it's a very serious flaw.
Here's a short list of don'ts:
  • Don't say "pretty good for it's age".
  • Don't say "else fine". Either it is or it isn't.
  • Don't copy someone else's bibliographic description word for word.

While condition is likely the most important part of the description, there are also standard methods of describing the collation and particularities of a book. Descriptive bibliography is a big subject, and requires quite a bit of study. Two good beginning texts on descriptive bibliography are Fredson Bowers' Principles of Bibliographical Description and Philip Gaskell's A New Introduction to Bibliography

For a really good education in describing books, find some respected dealers catalogues, and read their descriptions. For best results, get one of the recommended books listed in the right sidebar and use it to help you decode everything that you don't understand.


Related Articles

Identifying First Editions

How Much is it Worth?

A Checklist of Price Guides to Collectible Books

Recommended Books

John Carter ABC for Book Collectors.

Geoffrey Ashall Glaister. Encyclopedia of the Book

Fredson Bowers. Principles of Bibliographical Description

Philip Gaskell. A New Introduction to Bibliography

Web Links

IOBA Condition Standards

Descriptive Bibliography: An Online Tutorial

Book Collecting: An Essay In Parts. Part 2

International Book Collectors Association - Book Condition

Bibliophile Mailing List Forum on Book Condition

Bookbinding and the Conservation of books: A Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology

Wilsey Books Glossary

Book Buying
Reference Works
Geeky Stuff








Copyright © 2000 by Deanna Ramsay