On Bibliography

What is Descriptive Bibliography?

What is descriptive bibliography, and why does it matter for African American Literary Studies?

Simply put, descriptive bibliography is the systematic study of books and printed materials as physical objects. For instance, how is a book constructed? What kind of paper, inks, and fonts were used? How were the pages set up on the press and how were the sheets folded and bound together? What materials were used to make a book’s covers, and when and by whom was it bound? Who typeset, printed, and published the book? Who designed the book’s illustrations, cover art, and dust jacket? How many copies were printed for a given edition, and how many editions of the book were published over time? Where and how was the book distributed, and who preserved it so that we could consult it?

For more on what literary critics can learn from studying the techniques of descriptive bibliography, see this blog post by Bibliographic Society of America Executive Director, Erin Schreiner: You Should Learn Descriptive Bibliography.

The nine-volume Bibliography of American Literature (BAL)—the gold standard reference tool in the field— provides comprehensive bibliographic information for canonical American authors who died before 1930. But, due to a narrow definition of literariness, an emphasis on elite print sources, as well as ignorance of a wide range of African American writing, only a single African American author—Paul Laurence Dunbar—earned entry into the BAL’s ranks. This oversight sharply limits the utility of this important reference tool for African Americanist students and scholars.

The Black Bibliography Project (BBP) aims to revive—and transform–the practice of descriptive bibliography for African American literary studies. First, we want to remedy the dearth of accurate, organized information about Black print by creating authoritative web-based bibliographies of major African-American authors. Second, we want to explore how bibliographic and cataloguing practices could change in order to accommodate Black print culture and its modes of production, dissemination, and use.