MA Arts Management, Policy and Practice

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Duplicates And Variants: Describing And Cataloguing Rare Print

Course unit fact file
Unit code SALC70092
Credit rating 15
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? No


This module examines the technology of the European printing press and ways of describing the publications it produced both in and beyond Europe from the mid 15th to the end of the 19th century. Connecting form with content, we shall look at the development of printing processes and the format and structure of books, and at the social life of books after production – marks of use and value, bindings, annotations, provenance. The module aims to introduce professional library-cataloguing standards for identifying and describing rare print, while engaging critically with ethical and cultural issues both in the historic exploitation of printing technologies and in managing and describing rare print, from censorship to inclusive cataloguing. Teaching will involve hands-on object-based learning with rare printed items in the John Rylands Library. This module would be a good preparation for work in rare-books librarianship, the antiquarian book trade, commercial digital licensing or academic research. 


The unit aims to:

  • Enable students to acquire knowledge of a range of bibliographic analysis and research techniques to interpret printed items’ production, biography and materiality;
  • Equip students with training in using professional standards to describe and catalogue rare printed materials;
  • Explore and engage critically with cataloguing practices as means to represent, reveal or conceal the ethical, social and cultural contexts of historic printed publications;
  • Develop skills and confidence in handling historic physical printed publications, and in responding to the challenges and uncertainties of identifying and interpreting physical collection items. 


  • First principles: what are we trying to do and why? Development of rules and international protocols for description.
  • Printing process: development of technologies in Europe from 15th to 19th centuries.
  • Cataloguing the text: title, statement of responsibility, edition, imprint.
  • Identifying the text bibliographically: edition, issue, state; duplicates and variants; bibliographical reference sources (national and universal).
  • Form and extent: paper, book structure, format, collation.
  • Illustrations and decorations.
  • Social life of books 1: bindings and copy-specific notes.
  • Social life of books 2: provenance, annotations, marks of use and copy-specific notes.
  • Social life of books 3: migration of books and print technology, selling, collecting and small presses.
  • Control of the press: censorship and false imprints; printers’ registers and the imprimatur; interpreting unreliable bibliographical data and anonymous works.
  • Visit to rare-book collection outside John Rylands Library.
  • Presentations of essay topics. 

Teaching and learning methods

Full-group seminars, small-group activities and discussion, and self-guided reader appointments at John Rylands Library or other special-collections reading rooms. Activities will include object-based learning with hands-on experience of rare printed materials. 

Knowledge and understanding

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the principles of bibliographic analysis and description as applied to historic printed publications;
  • Critically evaluate approaches to interpreting physical and textual features of printed items that fall within the module’s remit, and assess suitable techniques for cataloguing them for a range of purposes and audiences;
  • Demonstrate a critical understanding of scholarly debates relevant to the analysis of printing technologies, book production, ownership and use, and apply that understanding to the description of historic physical printed items. 

Intellectual skills

  • Develop skills in primary-source analysis and identification;
  • Formulate a bibliographic description using professional cataloguing and descriptive protocols for rare printed materials;
  • Critically evaluate existing scholarship to devise research questions that focus on physical collection items. 

Practical skills

  • Handle physical historic printed items according to professional best practice;
  • Accurately apply international and interoperable descriptive protocols to the cataloguing of rare print;
  • Devise an independent research project focused on copy-specific features of one or more historic printed collection item. 

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Develop team-working and oral-presentation skills through participation in class discussions;
  • Manage time through preparation of assignments;
  • Use ICT resources for programme support;
  • Write fluent prose. 

Employability skills

Students will develop technical skills in professional description and cataloguing of rare materials and in handling physical heritage items. They will also develop skills in oral communication through class participation, in written communication through the submission of course assignments, and in time-management through completion of coursework. As the course encourages students to interrogate bias in cataloguing and descriptive protocols, it will help refine critical thinking skills. All these skills will be beneficial for future employment.

Assessment methods

Assessment taskFormative or SummativeLengthWeighting within unit (if relevant)
EssaySummative2500 words70%
Essay proposalFormative500 words0%
Exercise in bibliographic description: Catalogue recordSummative500 words30%

Feedback methods

Students will receive formative feedback on an essay outline submitted in advance of the principal assignment, and on practice exercises in bibliographic description undertaken during class. 

Written feedback on submitted assessed work shall be delivered within the time-frame recommended by SALC.  

Recommended reading

Sarah Werner, Studying early printed books 1450-1800: a practical guide. (Hoboken, NJ: Wily, 2019)

Philip Gaskell, A new introduction to bibliography. (Oxford: OUP, 1972 or Delaware: Oak Knoll, 1995)

Rare Books And Manuscripts Section Bibliographic Standards Committee, Association Of College And Research Libraries, Descriptive cataloging of rare materials (RDA edition) [= DCRMR]. (American Library Association, 2022)

Alice Wickenden, ‘Things to know before beginning, or: why provenance matters in the library’ in Inscription (Issue 1, 2020)

David Pearson, Provenance research in book history: a handbook. (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2019)

Helen Smith and Louise Wilson (Eds), Renaissance paratexts. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)

John Barnard, D.F. McKenzie and David McKitterick, The Cambridge history of the book in Britain vols. 3-6. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999-2019) 

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Seminars 24
Independent study hours
Independent study 126

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Tabitha Tuckett Unit coordinator

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