One of the great joys of bookselling is the biblio-detective work involved in learning about some find, obscure or otherwise. You pick up an unusual title, a book you’ve never handled before and can hardly wait to get it back to the shop and find out what you have. Years of experience help in figuring out what you have but one of the reasons I love this job is that there is always something new to learn.
The Library of Congress website is an often overlooked resource that can help solve some biblio mysteries. Knowing how to use it can add another weapon to your reference arsenal. Consider this a quick introduction.
Where is it on the web?
I can’t link directly to the site (thanks, eBay Guide people... really dumb!) but if you enter “Library of Congress” into your favorite search engine, their homepage is easy to find. From there, click the “Library Catalogs” button at the top. That brings you to the “...online catalogs” page. This is the page I have bookmarked on all my computers. I personally use the “Basic Search” link but experiment with all of them and find one you are comfortable using.
Cautions before starting:
Not all books can be found:
From their frequently asked questions “While the Library of Congress is one of the largest libraries in the world, it does not have a copy of every item every published.” Titles both common (many genre paperbacks) and obscure (self-published works) and all points in between may be missing from their collection or on-line catalog. It is a tremendous resource but not the be-all-and-end-all.
Access the site enough, and sooner or later you will get an “"all available connections are in use" error message. This is more likely during peak hours (according to their website, Tuesday thru Thursday, 10AM-2PM Eastern time). With a bit of patience and persistence, you should be able to connect.
The general rule for information found on the Internet (and in life) applies to the Library of Congress as well. Be wary. Test the information you see with what you already know. There is a strong presupposition that the Library of Congress information is correct, but mistakes happen. Never check your common sense at the gateway.
What you can learn from a Listing.
Enter a search term (I most often use the “Title Begins With (omit initial article)” option. Sometimes, you will be present with multiple choices. Choose whichever ones seem closest to the copy you are researching... I often will secondary click and open in a new tab multiple tabs if I need to compare similar items. At first glance, the information looks relatively limited but it can provide valuable information if you know how to read it.
Is "First" explicitly stated in the Catalog Entry?
The convention among catalogers is to record what they see. If you see “First Edition” in the L
oC listing, that is extremely strong (but alas, not absolute... see “Nobody’s Perfect” above) evidence that “First” should be stated in the book itself, probably on the copyright page. Note, the “First” (or “1st”) statement needs to be explicit. You may ‘know’ that a stylized “FR” emblem on a Farrar Rinehart b
ook means “Fir
st printing” but that is not what the cataloger sees. He/she sees the “FR”, perhaps even knows that it means ‘1st.’ But first is *not* explicitly stated and so it is not recorded as such in the listing.
Unfortunately, you should NOT make any conclusions about the lack of a ‘first’ statement in the LoC listing. In other words, just because the LoC Listing does not explicitly state ‘first’ does not mean that you can conclude your unstated copy is therefore a first edition. The lack of a “First” statement becomes nothing more than a starting point for more additional research.
Should the year be on the title page?
This is probably the second most important piece of information I use on a regular basis when I access the LoC catalog. Working under the assumption that the Library of Congress cataloged a first printing, check the “Published/Created:” line. If the year is in parenthesis, that is very strong circumstantial evidence that the year does not appear on the title page. Likewise, an unbracketed year strongly implies that the year *should* appear on the title page. This can be important for determining first printings for some publishers as well as for separating *some* book club chaff from trade edition wheat.
Matters of Size.
I’m planning a separate guide on the question of size in books but can briefly point out here that a Library of Congress entry can solve the question of how tall a book *should* be. The Library of Congress generally catalogs trade editions. The height of each book will be recorded in centimeters. The most important thing you need to know to interpret this data is that the LoC always rounds up to the nearest centimeter. So a book that actually measures 20.1 cm will be recorded as 21cm by the Library of Congress.
1969-1972 LoC Numbering System
Catalog enough books and you’ll notice how the first two (or, post-year-200, first four) numbers of the LoC number come very close to the year the book was published. The exception is in books cataloged from around 1969-1972. During these years, according to their website:
“ a 7-series year number was assigned. In these numbers the initial digit of 7 was followed by a modulus-ll check digit. The year in which the card number was assigned can be approximated from the year portion of the Date entered on file (008/00-05). With the re-institution of the year series number in 1972, provisions were made to skip those individual card numbers which could have been assigned previously as a 7-series number.”
So if you encounter books from 1969-1972 with LoC numbers that don’t seem quite ‘right’ rest assured, a quick trip to the LoC should provide proof that your book was published/printed in the ‘correct’ year.