Berwick Sayers on Annotation I

A  pamphlet for librarians that is still relevant in the days of the web. People still need to know how to annotate information in catalogues. As Berwick Sayers says, annotation is elucidation - but he is down on the annotator who adds information needlessly. A real offender is a cataloguer who in noting the plot of a novel gives away the whole story.  Internet booksellers  break B-S's rules every day. For example, if the information is obviously there already do not annotate-- we do not need to know that Wood's British Trees is 'a handbook to trees growing in Great Britain' or Harrison's The Boys of Wynport College is a 'a schoolboy story.'

He also points out a fault of which many cataloguer is now guilty - giving irrelevant details about the author: for example, if a man writes a book on The Fertilisation of Soils it is of no consequence to the reader to know that "the author was Chancellor of the Exchequer." There are of course different rules for sellers; a librarian is not trying to get someone to buy the book. B-S's rules however apply to the world of Wikipedia where they are often broken - giving opinions, recommendations, irrelevance, shallow research and, conversely, faults that '..arise from too great a devotion to this work. The introduction into catalogues of fine writing or elaborate language is an abuse greatly to be deprecated.'

In the case of undesirable books B-S notes that drawing attention to them by 'danger notes' is self-defeating - "to say that a book is 'not written for girls' schools' must really be frightfully tantalising to any normally built schoolgirl."  To be continued with info on the life and writings of the great librarian-- a book on card indexes, mountaineering, songs, poems and a history of his borough Croydon..



The first draft of this paper was submitted to the examiners in cataloguing in the Library Association Examination in 1906. It appeared shortly after in the Croydon Libraries staff magazine, a typewritten periodical founded by Mr. H. Rutherford Purnell. In 1918 it was published in a revised form as No. 9 of the Library Assistants' Association Series. I am assured that it is still of interest to beginners in cataloguing, and, at the request of the A.A.L. Section, I have retouched it for this reissue, which I send forth with the caution that it is what it is called, "First Steps," and not a treatise on all annotation.

First Edition .. 1918
Second Edition .. 1932
Reprinted (revised) .. 1948

1.  So rapid is the output of the modern book press, and so swift are the strides that discoveries in all fields of science and art are making, that the current truths of one hour may very well be the exploded theories of the next. Librarians perhaps more than any people are conscious of the fluctuating state of knowledge; and the knowledge that is preserved in books demands constant watching. Moreover, this is a day of specialisation, and he who would read to profit must read in a well-defined area, with a deafly understood object in view. Or again, having no object in view or discerning it only dimly, he must be led to recognise that object, so that he may duly fall into his proper mental area. These are the wider reasons for that part of cataloguing practice which we call annotation. They give rise to systematic catalogues, to classified collections of books, some of which are more or less self-explanatory and prevent the enquirer from wandering into irrelevant fields. But in addition they have produced a race of librarians who hold that title entries in catalogues, however good, are often misleading and require to be explained. And further, that readers may often be induced to read seemingly uninviting books if the nature of their contents is only more clearly defined to them than it is by the two or three often colourless catchwords of the rifle. Our opening premises suggest a large field of work for the annotator, a close acquaintance with current knowledge as revealed in books, and a power of expressing that knowledge in brief descriptions of the books in order to bring them to the notice of the readers they concern.

2.  Before we can decide on what is the legitimate use of annotation, we must obtain a working definition of annotation. There is a great difference of opinion in this country and America as to what are its purposes. Although it is by no means universal, the prevalent American idea of annotation is appraisal, and we have three terms often confused which in their nature are quite distinct–annotation, evaluation, and appraisal. I should be inclined to substitute for annotation another word, elucidation, and say that annotation is a covering name for all three words. In Great Britain, generally speaking, annotation is confined to elucidation, although the guides and handbooks issued by Dr. E. A. Baker form a notable exception in favour of evaluation. First then we may survey the current theories in tabulated order:
(a) "Criticism should be avoided in the writing of annotations ; but the use of appreciative adjectives like 'good,' 'complete,' 'exhaustive,' is not necessarily to be considered a transgression of this rule.”–J. D. Brown.
(b) "To make an accurate and compendious statement as to the subject, scope, manner, qualifications of the author, and general suitability of the book for this or that reader.”–E. A. Baker.
(c) "An abstract of the character and individuality of the book catalogued . . . excluding judgment."–E. A. Savage.
(d) "Annotation deals with matters of fact,not with matters of opinion :the true function of the annotator is elucidationCriticism, either direct or implied, is inadmissible.”–Sayers and Stewart.
3.  The modern publishers use a form of annotation which they call a "blurb," a delightful sobriquet which covers a type of annotation written solely to persuade buyers. The psychology of such notes is crude in the eyes of the librarian, but when his encounters with so many of them almost persuade him that he is living in a world of masterpieces, he may well take note of the fact, since such persuasion is their purpose. If he is moved by them, what may be their effect on readers not case-hardened by use against their blandishments ? This may be used as an argument in favour of annotation which praises or condemns, but the danger of such annotation lies in the natural, simple truth that librarians cannot be universal specialists, and their opinions on most subjects must be worth just nothing. Why express them ? Opinion and safety both seem balanced in annotation, or elucidation. We may therefore define annotation as A descriptive extension of the title-page of a book in which the qualifications of the author, and the scope, purpose and place of the book are indicated.

4.  To commence with the first part of our definition, the extension of the title-page, a single example will be sufficient to exhibit the insufficiency of many rifles to convey information about the character of the book. Ruskin's Unto This Last is a discussion of the elements of political economy and trading : the rifle, however, is a quotation from one of the Gospel parables, and when explained indicates that Ruskin built his system of labour and wages upon the principle laid down in that parable. There is clearly need for a descriptive addition to the title of this book.

5.  These additions are accomplished by varying methods, all of which have their special excellences and defects. Perhaps this is hardly the place to consider the expense of annotation, but in passing one may remark that a fully annotated catalogue of say 50,000 volumes would run to many hundreds of pages, and cost several hundreds of pounds for printing alone. In many municipal libraries, therefore, annotation of complete printed catalogues on any extensive scale is prohibitive. To compromise between expense and the need of annotation a method of introducing a few explanatory words in brackets after the title is often adopted. The entries with this simplest form of annotation appear as follows :
Butler. Great Lone Land. [Canadian North-West.]

In many catalogues the dates of the first publication of classics are added to the imprint ; as,
Darwin. Origin of Species. [1859.] 1901.

Dates covered in travels are added ; as,
Decle. Three Years in Savage Africa. [1891-94.]

Or periods of history ; as,
Airy. English Restoration and Louis XIV. [1648-78.]

6.  Now, however, a more extensive system of annotation has come into vogue, which has been codified. The annotator of this school takes a book in hand and asks himself a few definite questions about it :
1. Who is the author and what are his qualifications for writing his book ?
2. What are the argument or subject, and the method of treatment ?
3. What is the object or intention of the book ?
4. What preliminary knowledge is required to read it ?
5. What special bibliographical features does it present in the following :
(a) editing.
(b) contributions not indicated in the rifle.
(c) bibliographies, glossaries.
(d) appendices.
6. What is its relation to other books on the same subject ?
And working on these an entry is finally produced in the following form :

Homby. Telescope Victories. 1906.
The author is President of the Royal Astronomical Society.
A collection of essays on the work and discoveries of astronomers since Copernicus. Submits that chance has played a great part in the discovery of the nebula theory and in other astronomical forms. Presumes a knowledge of Euclid and literal equations. Has a bibliography of astronomy, a brief glossary of terms, and an appendix of star seasons. May be considered supplementary to Norman Lockyer's "Great Astronomers."

This, then, is an example of the ordinary modem form of annotation such as is in vogue in the Pittsburgh Public Library lists in America, and in the Croydon, Norwich, Sheffield and other public libraries in this country. When carefully compiled the note gives the enquirer practically all the information he needs to determine whether the book is suitable for him or not. END OF FIRST PART

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2 thoughts on “Berwick Sayers on Annotation I

  1. Anonymous

    The worst offenders, and I am speaking of booksellers, are those who plagiarize the catalogue descriptions of other, better, booksellers.
    As a collector, I find it quite disconcerting when I find books on sites such as ABE.books that have been "dressed up" with a description lifted from a far superior book listed by a truly professional seller. These sellers, unsurprisingly, are not members of professional bookseller associations and seem to have no shame in pilfering the knowledge of those sellers who have earned the distinction.
    Perhaps the annotation I find most egregious by amateur sellers is the phrase: "In good condition for its age." Grrrrrrr Not to mention equally ghastly descriptions such as: "Large chip on spine, pages foxed, missing title page. Otherwise FINE." One hopes there is a special bookseller hell for such people.

  2. admin Post author

    "In good condition for its age" is exceptionally annoying and betrays the seller as an amateur. On eBay sometimes you see a seller who has lifted a 3 page Wikipedia entry to sell a $10 book, that would get Berwick Sayers goat…. I find the use of the word 'dedicated' rather than presented curiously annoying, having been brought up to use the word only when the book is presented to the (usually printed) dedicatee of the book. Pedantic, I know…


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