Consider the title page of Jacobus Peeters’ 1673 edition of the Theatrum Pictorium, a bound collection of 246 remediated prints of Italian paintings in the possession of the Hapsburg Leopold Wilhelm. At the bottom of the plate, Peeters advertises his Antwerp print shop in four languages, where more bound pictures may be purchased. The promotion variously describes these works as ‘Prints Books’ (Print-Boecken) in Dutch, books of intaglio (livres de taille douce) in French, or simply books (libri, libros) in Latin and Spanish. Four languages lead to three different senses of books of printed pictures. This project seeks to make sense of a medium that mystified contemporaries: how are we to catalogue a book that even Peeters could not describe?

When attempting to find a book of pictures in a collection today, it becomes abundantly clear that our structures of information organization were not designed to record them since they lie outside traditional media catalogued at libraries and museums. Often times, records produce clumsy and imprecise nomenclature to describe such material: a ‘series’ of prints in a book, a bound ‘set’ of prints, a cycle of printed images. The ‘book of prints’ is more appropriate since it precisely defines the medium for what it is, rather than a ‘series’, ‘set’, or ‘cycle’ of prints that masks its bound status. Moreover, the term was in usage to describe English bound collections of pictures since the late seventeenth century. Although the book of prints existed for over a hundred and fifty years by this point, the Theatrum demonstrates how printmakers and collectors across Europe struggled to define the medium throughout the early modern period.

Today, institutional divides mark how and where books of prints are stored and accessed. In Prints and Drawings departments, the single image is prioritized as the basic unit of cataloguing. Printed images are held within solander boxes and brought out so that patrons may see the individual work, but not touch it. Prints are commonly torn out of their bindings by dealers and, especially when mounted or matted, obfuscate evidence of their former bound status for researchers. In a museum, a scholar’s experience with a print accords to that of a painting, it should be experienced independently and without relation to other pictures from its binding. The cataloguing of books of prints in these institutions echoes such beliefs in how prints ‘should’ be handled: the pictures within are recorded individually and any reference to its ‘container’ (book, solander box, portfolio, etc.) are either ignored or relegated to secondary status. If an entry lists an image as part of a grouping of prints, there is usually no indication if its bound or not, nor if the prints were pasted into an album. If the binding is mentioned in an entry, it usually is mentioned in the additional information section and employs inconsistent terms to describe its bookish status. Print collections likewise do not subdivide the book medium: if a print is recorded as within a book, there is no indication it is a book of prints or another book form. Trying to find a book of prints within a museum setting is usually a guessing game.

The situation is no better in rare book collections. Library catalogues no longer distinguish between books that are almost entirely pictorial and a ‘normal’ textual book. For the increasingly out of date Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR2), the 300 field of the MARC record - used for physical descriptions of materials - allows cataloguers to state whether a work is “all ill.” or “chiefly ill.” However, the situation has become clouded under the new Resource Description and Access (RDA), where they have removed guidance for “chiefly” or “all”. It is unclear, then, how cataloguers should now properly categorize books of prints, other than leaving a note in the 500 field. If they choose to include a note, cataloguers do so without a standard to describe the medium. In other words, it is more difficult to identify such works now than it was ten years ago. The Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials - Books (DCRMB) contains no specific information on how to record books of prints, although the Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials - Graphics (DCRMG) offers some guidance. Appendix H in the DCRMG is intended for “cataloging formally published portfolios, books of plates, etc. bearing formal title pages when graphic material characteristics are the primary focus of the description.” While it appears promising, the guide stresses that the bookish qualities to groupings of prints can be described in an optional note, which returns us to the same problems found in RDA. It is currently impossible to identify many books of prints without searching for a specific artist, engraver, or publisher.

Subject headings do not provide a solution either since they primarily focus on ‘content’ rather than form. Library of Congress subject headings are problematic for recording media from non-European traditions that have never distinguished modes of knowledge, yet for pre-modern Europe we encounter the same difficulties. The assumption that books are primarily textual means that books of prints retain a precarious position under these established categories. The closest subject heading within the Library of Congress is ‘Picture Books,’ a term occasionally used to describe books of prints. Picture books is an insufficient term for recording books of prints since the former is usually associated with a nineteenth and twentieth century tradition of word-image narration, often intended for children. Books of prints do not usually have this precision; there never is a ‘story’ told. Since they lie apart from the modern picture book, the subject headings usually offered for books of prints instead relate to its theme. Books of prints, however, approach numerous early modern subjects: there were religious works, such as Jacopo Ligozzi’s Descrizione del Sacro Monte della Vernia (1612), a simulated experience of the pilgrimage site of La Verna, designed for those who could not visit; drawing manuals like the Scuola Perfetta (c. 1608), which never had a cohesive order across its two hundred year publishing history; even Stradanus’ well-known Nova Reperta (c. 1590), celebrating the greatest inventions of the “modern” age, was commonly bound as a group of twenty prints with a title page. Current library classifications fail to account for the book of prints medium.

Between museums and libraries, books of prints are frequently hidden by different collecting traditions. Within the same institution, some books of prints may end up in their library and others in their print collection. The criteria for these decisions is usually unclear, although artistic fame seems to be a factor: it is telling that early iterations of Albrecht Dürer’s ‘series’ of prints are held at the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin while a ‘feminine’ pattern book like the Splendore delle Virtvose Giovani, designed by the little-known draughtsman Iseppo Foresto, resides downstairs in the same building, in the Kunstbibliothek.

The issues are compounded by digitization projects in both rare book libraries and prints and drawings departments. In addition to imprecise nomenclature online that mistakenly categorizes all groups of prints together, catalogue records are further complicated by scans that deliberately obscure the book of print’s materiality: a ‘series’ of exceedingly small prints by the Little Masters, usually held in portfolios or pasted into albums, is equated with what would today be called a folio-sized ‘series’ of prints in book form. This is sometimes nearly impossible to notice because of our digital remediations which homogenize the experience of viewing these works. Scans by these institutions commonly focus on the ‘main’ part of a printed image, omitting the ‘superfluous’ paper surrounding the platemark. In their continued prioritization of the single work of art, museum entries exclude all non-pictorial media in an illustrated book, focusing solely on the images. Metadata is often lacking and does not account for the bibliographic information sufficiently.

Digital images of prints remove text at the bottom of the plates and, more concerningly for books of prints, eliminate any introductory text that precedes bound pictures. Institutions commonly dismiss such material as secondary to the ‘main’ part of a ‘series’ of prints. I call these oft ignored features ‘parapictorial’, an inversion of Gérard Genette’s ‘paratext’ that describes the normative subordination of illustrations by text in books. Hierarchies of word and image in both museums and libraries have led to various miscategorizations of books of prints. By coining this term, my intention is to consider the bookish features of the medium: indices, title pages, dedications, and other material synonymous with textual book production is commonly overlooked for both digitizations and catalogue records of books of prints. Omissions of these parapictorial features in libraries and museums validates the belief that bound groups of prints are not books. In a sense, the parapictorial is what confirms books of prints to be books.

This website confronts institutional and historical divides that have led to the dismissal of the medium. Part of the reason books of prints are so misunderstood today is that there is no standard for cataloguing them. The aim of this website is to record books of prints as the basis for developing a new cataloguing standard. The first phase of its development has focused on recording the 148 titles that I found in my research across libraries in the United States and Europe, alongside scans of the approximately 10 examples found in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto. I recorded the following details when examining books of prints: title, creator(s), date, medium of the plates (etching, engraving, or woodcut), number of plates, its physical dimensions, city of printing, language(s), institution where the book is currently held, and a brief description that includes additional information on the book. I also linked each title to three Library of Congress Subject Headings, which can be found under the Subjects tab of the website. 

In addition to recording the Universal Short Title Catalogue (USTC), I have also found it necessary to create the Midanik Book of Prints Cataloguing number (MBPC). It serves a similar but more focused goal than the USTC: it acts as a centralized reference system for books of prints moving forward, which is necessary since the medium is still not recognized by most professionals.

All of the above features were inserted into resource fields established through the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (DCMI), a standard of metadata for digitized media. This data will soon be made available in other formats (including CSV and TEI/XML) in accordance with Linked Open Data (LOD) practices within the Digital Humanities.

A secondary goal of recording these details is to discover common features of the book of prints: Antony Griffiths posits that the books are often oblong and thus fit awkwardly on shelves. The data not only offers a better understanding of early modern print and book practices, it also may offer tools for researchers to identify books of prints. In the next phase of this project, I hope to broaden the website to include data, scans, and essays on related cataloguing issues from librarians as well as print and book historians.

“300 Physical Description.” OCLC, December 28, 2020, https://www.oclc.org/bibformats/en/3xx/300.html.
Anstey, Michèle and Geoff Bull. “The Picture Book: Modern and Postmodern.” In International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. Edited by Peter Hunter, 2nd edition, 228-339. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2004.
Brice, Germain. A New Description of Paris… London: Printed for Henry Bonwicke, 1687. Retrieved from: https://books.google.ca/books?id=smtp5adf9yQC&pg=PA44&dq=%22books+of+prints%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi218iVjLHvAhUCcq0KHZOaAQQQ6AEwAHoECAIQAg#v=onepage&q=%22books%20of%20prints%22&f=false
Dackerman, Susan, ed. Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Yale University Press, 2011.
Greist, Alexandra “Learning to Draw, Drawing to Learn: Theory and Practice in Italian Printed Drawing Books, 1600-1700.” PhD Diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2011.
Griffiths, Antony. The Print before Photography: An Introduction to European Printmaking, 1550-1820. London: The British Museum Press, 2016.
The Joint Steering Committee for Revision of AACR. Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules Second Edition, 2002 revision. Ottawa: Canadian Library Association, 2002.
Library of Congress. Descriptive Cataloguing of Rare Materials - Books, 3rd edition. Washington: Library of Congress, 2011.
Library of Congress. Descriptive Cataloguing of Rare Materials - Graphics, 2nd edition. Washington: Library of Congress, 2013.
Nikolajeva, Maria, and Carole Scott. How Picturebooks Work. London: Routledge, 2001.
“Picture books,” Library of Congress, accessed March 14, 2021, https://id.loc.gov/authorities/subjects/sh85101984.html