OCLC has become, in a few short years, an indispensable resource for the academic librarian, but is it as useful for the bibliographer and/or rare bookseller who uses its database? As with all other bibliographic work, the information provided is only as accurate as the cataloguer has been. Using a method similar to that used in the grand old green volumes of the Union Catalog, with all its photocopied cards (typed and handwritten) from every major American library, the cataloguing librarian identifies the existing book record and attaches her/his library’s copy to that record if all details (publisher, place, date, collation of pages, size, etc.) match the volume in hand. If any of these points differ, a new record is added. If the book has a frontispiece and none is noted in the existing cataloguing, another record is made. And so on, until a very full picture of a book’s publishing history can be discerned from the complete listing of that title. Anyone using these records to trace back to the very first printing of a title not only depends on the accuracy of the cataloguers, but also on the likelihood that the true first edition is part of at least one library’s collection. Many mistakes, typographical errors and informational errors occur during the cataloguing process. Sometimes they are caught and eventually corrected. Very often, however, the errors remain, so the researcher must proceed with caution.
Libraries and other services pay to use the resources of OCLC by subscription. Many university libraries offer OCLC look-up as one of their many extra services for students and faculty. It is possible to subscribe as an individual, but the fee is rather steep according to Vic Zoschak of Tavistock Books, who was a subscriber until a few years ago. The cost was a minimum of $350 for 500 searches, but it may have increased. The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America now offers access to OCLC’s WorldCat with its member services; it is, therefore, no longer necessary for ABAA associates to subscribe to OCLC to use that database.
ABEBOOKS offers its customers the opportunity to use a greatly abbreviated version of OCLC whenever an advanced book search fails to find a book listing: “No books match the given criteria.” Click the link “Find it at a local library” and a search form for the OCLC appears. This function, however, is offered in order to find the location of a book, i.e., the library that owns a copy. It does not give the more complete details available through the OCLC subscription service nor does it include all editions or all publications available of the particular title searched. And, as is true of the OCLC database in general, popular books, modern children’s books, or any book not likely to be found at a university or major library, will not show up at all.
Search results do offer some tantalizing clues for the bookseller who is searching for the first edition of an older title, but no more. While the “complete” OCLC includes book descriptions, notes and, if applicable, bibliographic references with the bibliographer’s number for the book, no such details are given in this quick search. The results for the same search may vary rather greatly when repeated. The most glaring omission of this service is that microform copies of books are not labeled as such; therefore, the physical count of the existence of a rare book is skewed by the addition of all the microfiche or microfilm copies that are normally catalogued under separate categories within the OCLC database. Unfortunately, this short form OCLC is extremely unreliable for judging the rarity of a title in original book form.
For example, a search on ABEBOOK’s OCLC (since none are currently available for sale) for the little volume Emblems of Mortality, Representing, In Upwards Of Fifty Cuts, Death, First American Edition, Hartford: Babcock, 1801, leads us to listings of 102 libraries that own copies.
The results do offer the additional information that the “authors” are Hans Holbein and Samuel Stennett, and a later edition adds Alexander Anderson. Using the full version OCLC for the same search, results show that only nine libraries, which include The Connecticut Historical Society, Boston Public Library, Princeton and Harvard University, hold copies of the actual book; ninety-three copies are in microform and its scarcity as a book is now apparent. The book is 14cm. and has 108 pages with publisher’s advertisements on pp.107-108. It is listed in Shaw and Shoemaker’s Early American Imprints, Second Series, no. 443. “The cuts are from the design of Holbein and The Bird of Paradise by Samuel Stennett.” Exploring later editions, we find that Alexander Anderson was the woodcut artist who adapted the Bewick illustrations of the 1789 London edition for this first American edition, and a proof copy of his illustrations for Emblems of Mortality is available at the New York Public Library. A look-up for the 1789 English edition tells us the preface is by “J.S. Hawkins. Cf. ESTC. An identical edition was printed in Newcastle the same year under the title Dance of Death, with attribution of the illustrations to Hans Holbein, adapted by Thomas and John Bewick. Illustrations accompanied by a translation of Imagines mortis, or the Images of death.” No surprise, there is a copy at the New York Public Library. Now it is off to the Library to compare the London preface and illustrations with the American, find Shaw and Shoemaker’s notation, do a little more research on Alexander Anderson, explore other bibliographies and auction records…. While the OCLC offers a wealth of information, is it not fortunate that there is still old-fashioned bibliographic detective work to be done?
The library catalogs of the past contain phenomenal bibliographic records thanks to the many, many librarians who created them; they are the basis for the catalogs/databases of today. It was my pleasure to meet a retired Cambridge University librarian, Arthur Tillotson, the younger brother of literary scholar Geoffrey, who knew as much and more about bibliographic detail than any rare bookseller. He was the exemplar of the knowledgeable bibliographer who brought the highest degree of accuracy to his profession.
Now the computer reigns, and while there is greater speed and efficiency, something is lost. Book holdings quickly entered into databases lack more and more of the minute points we as booksellers appreciate. Sadly, even on OCLC Worldcat, the longer book descriptions of only a few years ago were pared down when its format changed. Further, it is to be hoped that mistakes and omissions are caught and eventually corrected, but this brings us back to the acumen of the librarian/cataloguers. Library science schools now emphasize computer technology, which is obviously important, but perhaps the study of the book has become secondary. Library databases cannot be used solely to trace a book’s history nor to determine its value, but can be effectively used together with the resources of reliable bibliographies such as The Bibliograhy of American Literature (BAL), auction records such as American Book Prices Current (ABPC), compendia of booksellers’ descriptions and prices such as Book Prices: Used and Rare, edited by Zempel and Verkler, and the Annual Register of Book Values, the great booksellers’ descriptive catalogues of old and, as always, our own intuition and good judgment.