“Bibliography is the discipline that studies texts as recorded forms and the processes of their transmission, including their production and reception” (McKenzie 1999). It is a discipline of its own whereby ‘bibliographers’ study the physical process and culture of literature. Bibliographically speaking, format is defined as: a term for describing the makeup of the book in relation to the amount of sheets (how many times it is folded), leafs and pages in a gathering. The format of a book can be interpreted by examining the construction of the physical object itself, judging the page size, and working out how many times it has been folded. Other key indicators are: the watermark and the chain lines which are subtly going across the page.

This is an example of an octavo format:

Octavo format

Octavo format

There is one sheet, the front and back. Folio, means there are two sides of the sheet. Therefore the sheet is then folded over to create creases in the sheet. Depending on how many times you fold the sheet determines how many creases there will be. This process results in the division of the sheet in order to provide more writing space, on a smaller scale. When the sheet is folded over four times, it results in creating eight leafs and sixteen pages. A page can be counted as the front and back of a particular leaf. By judging the size of a book and determining how many times it was folded over, a bibliographer can thus interpret the format of the book. An octavo was perhaps the most common style of formatting, however, it can vary significantly depending on the size of the book. For example, a large book may be a quarto (the sheet having been folded twice). This process is known as the collation formula and it plays a key role in the formation of a book.

Furthermore, Greetham (2013) describes the importance of formatting and the collation formula. He states that for anyone who understands the formula could thus make a copy of the book with exact amount of leaves, pages, etc in the exact order. This was significant as the format was transcribed into small symbols which in turn convey the entire outline or physical form of a particular book.

In conclusion, Bibliography is in fact a discipline of its own. The study of books transcends generations and has thus affected the way we read books today. Passed down through history are artefacts baring the hallmarks of time. Each book is a documented account of the progression from man-made books, to the printing press, and finally the digital age. Moreover, the history of how books are made plays a significant role in the development of books now and how they are interpreted. The format of a book is fundamental to that as it represents the body of the book, and the mode people felt it best to present that book in. The Process of folding the sheet to create leafs was revolutionary at the time. It resulted in many trends such as catchwords and watermarks that are still studied in bibliography today.

Blayney, M. W. P. (1991) The First Folio of Shakespeare, Washington D.C.
Greetham, D. (2013) Textual Scholarship: An Introduction, Routledge.
McKenzie, F.D. (1999) Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts, Cambridge University Press.

Contributed by Kieran Hackett.


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