The Identification of Type Faces in Bibliographical Description

Two suggestions may be helpful to descriptive bibliographers in working out a method for describing the typography of a book: bibliographers should base their measurement of type on its appearance on the printed page rather than to infer the size of the type body; and their system of classification of type designs should be graduated so that different degrees of detail can be presented under differing circumstances and for the several periods of book production.

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In 1938 Beatrice Warde explained the “clumsiness and inadequacy” of many of the basic terms relating to printing in this way: the technicians would have been able to produce new terms, she said, but “the design of printed matter has very largely passed into the hands of people who have only theoretical knowledge of type and printing, and when the latter began, as it were, to eavesdrop on the jargon of the shop, they lacked the self-confidence to challenge terms which had become antiquated.”1 The descriptive bibliographer often finds himself in a similar position: he is called upon to give some account of the typography in the books with which he deals, but he feels rather uneasy manipulat-ing the conventional terms and is not sure how to go about selecting the most meaningful information to present. Of course, some bibliographers will a lso be typographical experts, just as others will have made a special study of paper; but none can be equally proficient in all aspects of book production, and a standard system for the identification of type in descriptions of books would be a great help. Fredson Bowers, in his Principles of Bibliographical Description (1949), sets forth the essentials of measuring the type page and indicating the vertical measure of twenty lines, but his recommendations about referring to speci-men books (p. 445) require some experie nce to carry out and suggest the need for a detailed guide. As Stanley Morison puts it in his comprehensive introduction to Type Specimen Facsimiles (ed. John Dreyfus, 1963), there should be a companion volume to Bowers entitled “Descriptive Principles of Typography” (p. xxviii).

My purpose in this article is far less ambitious, for I am subject to the same lack of confidence in technical matters about w hich Mrs. Warde spoke. I only wish to make two suggestions-which I hope may help point the way toward the kind of d escriptive manual that must some day be produced. The assumption at the out-se t is that a precise d escription of the type used in a book is a proper part of the total bibliographical description of that book, a point not unanimously granted. Some bibliographers make no comment on type at all; and Desmond Flower, in his recent review of Frederick Woods's bibliography of Churchill (1963), remarks, “There may be a valid argument for recording what type a book is printed in, but I doubt if the length of the line in ems will ever be found of vital importance .... generally speaking modern book production is a rather pedestrian mechanical matter and complicated details should only be recorded if they help to resolve or clarify a problem."2 The contrary view, however, is that descriptive bibliography, like any other descrip tive discipline, must describe-concisely but exactly-all aspects of the object being examined, whether they are interesting or pedestrian. That a particular book should be described at all is enough to justify a description of its type. This information may not in every instance be significant for literary students, but a bibliographical description has a mixed audience. One cannot in a ny case know what is relevant to a given pursuit until a body of data h as been accumulated, and Carter and Pollard's Enquity should have made clear that early books are not the only ones in which it pays to look at typography.

Section I

For the descriptive bibliographer, the determination of type sizes is a different kind of problem from the one faced by the printer when he specifies a particular point size: for the pirnter is working with the types themsel ves, whereas the bibliographer has only the type faces-the impressions made by the types-to look at. The question which the bibliographer must answer at the beginning is whether he is recording the measurement of the face type or of the type itself; for the size of the type face he has direct evidence in the impressions on the page in front of him, but to identify the size of the physical type (the type body) he can only make de-ductions based on the composite arrangement of the impressions on the page. It is therefore most sensible to begin the descriptive note on a book's typography with a measurement of an entire type page-a procedure further justified by the fact that the pur-pose of the description is not simply to determine the size of an individual piece of type or a type face, but a lso to record the typographic design of the book in terms of the way those indi-vidual types are placed together.

The measurement of the type page, begun by the incunabulists (for whom typographical evidence is particularly crucial) and described by Bowers for books of all periods (pp. 344-47, 300-06, 444-46), is now a standard procedure. One finds a characteristic page and then record s the number of lines, the dimensions of the type page (length of text, then in parenthesis the length includ-ing headline and direction-line, then the width), and the vertical measurement of twenty lines: e.g., “23 ll. (p. 17), 128 (141) x 80 mm.; 113 mm. for 20 ll. “8 For details of the system, one sho uld consult Bowers; the only points which need be r aised here are the adoption of a twenty-line standard and the choice of millimeters over inches. As to the first, the convention of a twenty-line mea-surement is so well established for earl y books t hat it is futile to consider chang ing it; ten lines, however, are muc h more con-venient (a s McKerrow realized) and should, I think, be preferred for more recent books. On the second matter, it has been a rgued that inches are more a ppropriate for recent books, since the point system is based on inches and since the standard sizes of paper in England and America have been se t in ter ms of inches; but in view of the recent discussions of the possibility of adopting t he metric system in England and America, to say nothing of its inherently greater logic, there are strong grounds for preferring it even for modern books. 9 I t would be possible, of course, to give the type page dimensions in inches and t he ten-or twenty-line measurement in millimeters, but the result might be less, rather than more, convenient to readers. A similar compromise h as been suggested by John C. Tarr, who constructed a table by means of which twenty-line measurements in millimeters can be converted to the corresponding point size; he advocates including this point figure in parentheses following t he twenty-line measurement.10

Section II

The description of the style or design of a type face is a different sort of problem from the specification of its size. Once a unit of measure and a method for employing it a re established, anyone can perform the actual measurement; but to recognize the characteristics of forms and shapes-and to express those characteristics verbally-requires some aesthetic perception and a specialized vocabulary, as does any other commentary on art. It may be assumed that the bibliographer, with the minimum knowledge of typography described above, is able to make certain basic distinctions-between “old face,” “transitional,” and “modern,” for example-and is acquainted with several important faces (perhaps Caslon, Garamond, Baskerville, Bodoni) and a number of historic specimens of various periods. Even so, i n order to produce efficient descriptions, he must have at his disposal a standard nomenclature and framework of classification. Besides being standard (in the sense that it is widely used and understood), such a system should also be graduated-that is, it should provide a series of levels of increasing complexity and detail, so that the bibliographer could choose the level on which he would operate according to the requirements of each situation. In some cases it may not be possible-or even desirable-to furnish an elaborate description of a type design, while in others precise identification may be essential; the bibliographer should be able to var y his description, under differing circumstances and for the several periods of book production, and yet remain within one coherent master scheme. 14

As far as basic vocabulary is concerned, it should not be too difficult to achieve general agreement that the British Standard for Typeface Nomenclature (BS 2961: 1958) be adopted. This Stan-dard does not furnish a classification of faces but does give defini-tions of essential terms; it also serves an important nega tive function in excluding certain terms from the list of definitions, thus delimiting as well as establishing a standard vocabulary. Such words as “font,” “series,” and “family,” as well as the names for parts of a type or face, are of course defined; but for descriptive purposes, the adjectives relating to weight (blackness) and width a re especially important and may be grouped as follows:

  • semi-light
  • light
  • extra-light
  • semi-bold
  • bold
  • extra-bold
  • ultra-bold
  • semi-condensed
  • condensed
  • extra-condensed
  • ultra-condensed
  • semi-expanded
  • expanded
  • extra-expanded
  • ultra-expanded

Obviously such terms are relative to the standard (or “medium") weight and width of a given fam ily as issued by the manu facturer and do not imply any absolute notions as to what constitutes vari a tion from the norm. Nevertheless, the scheme provides a set of terms logical in its arrangement and promotes uniformity of terminology by eliminating such words as “heavy” and “Clarendon."15