Bibliography as a Search Engine
Search engines are an extremely valuable tool to find rare books, but one needs to find the proper search term to find those copies that do not turn up when googling for “vesalius fabrica.” This is especially a problem for privately owned copies purchased at auctions, which are very difficult to find. Fortunately, most auction houses use a bibliographic reference system that, mutatis mutandis, can be used for the purposes of internet search.
Auction houses tend to have a distinct, standardized style for providing online and offline descriptions of a rare book. These descriptions include a proper collation with missing pages marked, a physical condition report, sometimes information on previous owners, and a short, often superlative, blurb on the significance of the book on sale. These entries tend to close with references to standard works of bibliography that provide further information on the book on sale. In the case of the Fabrica, such references include Garrison-Morton or Horblit’s One hundred books famous in science. Thus, the recent Christie’s auction of the Royal Institution Fabrica ended with the following line: “Adams V-603; Dibner, Heralds of Science 122; Garrison-Morton 375; Heirs of Hippocrates 281; Grolier Medicine 18A; NLM/Durling 4577; PMM 71; Wellcome 6560; Norman 2137.”
If you then put these phrases into Google, you will find Fabricas on sale everywhere. Earlier this month, the google search term “Norman 2137” turned up a number of copies recently sold at auction or currently on sale. And this morning, googling for “Adams V-603” brought me three previously unknown (to us) copies of the Fabrica, sold in the past decade by Heritage Auctions and by Dreweatts & Bloomsbury, and at the Gerald I. Sugarman sale of PBA Galleries. As I argued elsewhere, bibliographic references can quickly turn into media that facilitate the commerce of rare books (or naturalia), and, in this case, also facilitate the completion of our census.