Understanding Our Rare Book Descriptions

At Alembic we take pride in the precision and detail of our cataloguing, which conforms to the best industry standards regarding the description of rare books. Here’s an introduction for new customers or those unfamiliar with rare book cataloguing.

Title and Author

The title of the book is presented exactly as it is on the title page (including unusual or antiquated spellings), rather than the way it appears on the dust jacket or the upper cover of the book. Long titles with additional information are carried through to the beginning of the physical description where they appear in italics. Any information in [square brackets] is not present in the book but was added by us based on bibliographical research. For instance, in the case of an anonymously published work we may add the author’s name in brackets, or if the date is not printed in the book we include that in brackets. Text in (round brackets) indicates extra information that we think is useful. A good example is a book inscribed by the author to a famous person. In that case we would add the celebrity’s name in round brackets before the author’s name. In the case of an untitled work such as a photo album we might include the subject of the album in round brackets. 



These notes are the fun and less formal part of the description. We begin by stating the edition and other important information such as whether the book is signed or specially bound. Publication history or provenance (ownership history) might be discussed, and important inscriptions and signatures are explained. The work is set within its intellectual, scientific, literary, and social context, so you know why it's important and considered collectible. We may also point out a book’s rarity, relying on historic publication data as well as the number of copies in libraries or at auction in recent years.

Physical Description

This section, located under the tab "Details & Condition" on the book's stock page, explains the physical features of the book and can be broken down into the following categories which always occur in the same order.

  • Publication details: This includes the place of publication followed by the publisher’s name and the date in the following format - Location: Publisher, Date. Any information in round or square brackets was not printed in the book but was added by us (see above for more details on the use of brackets).

  • Format and binding: The format is the formal term for a book’s structure, size and shape, most often octavo, quarto, or folio depending on how the pages were printed and gathered together for binding. It is followed by a description of the binding, starting with the binding material and then describing the appearance of the spine and boards; any lettering or decorations on the binding or edges of the text block; and the type of endpapers. The binding’s age and whether it is original or contemporary with the book’s publication is noted. If the spine has been rebacked or replaced it will be mentioned here, but other condition notes are included later in the description.

  • Illustrations: We give a full count of plates (illustrations that are printed separately from the text) and if possible state what process was used to print them. When engravings are included within the text we usually don’t give a full count but simply state that they occur.

  • Miscellaneous: We mention the presence of errata slips, binder’s tickets, and publisher’s ads.

  • Reader additions: The presence of bookplates, ownership inscriptions, and marginalia is noted.

  • Condition report: We describe specific faults and then give each book a formal rating - see this page for a detailed breakdown of our ratings. We also welcome email or phone enquiries about specific books and are happy to take additional photos.

  • Bibliography: If the book is mentioned in a bibliography we give the reference here in shortened form.

We hope that you enjoy reading our book descriptions, and please feel free to contact us with any questions about them.