Exclusive to Genii Forum: Librarium Magicum #5

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Postby Guest » 12/05/06 09:08 PM

Dear Genii Forum readers:

Below is the latest installment of my Magicol column, Librarium Magicum. As with the others, (see here for the first one: http://geniimagazine.com/forum/cgi-bin/ ... 489#000000), I hope you enjoy it. If you are not a member of the Magic Collectors Association, then you cant get Magicol, in which case IMHO you are missing out on a bargain for the money. For your annual dues of $25 ($30 for overseas members), you get 4 nicely produced issues of Magicol. Thats about 140 pages per year of great magic history covering all fields of collecting and history, many of which are in full color. All issues are profusely illustrated. You can join by sending your annual dues to: Magic Collectors Association LLC, P.O. Box 511, Glenwood, IL 60425-0511.

"Publishing" in this medium is wonderful because it allows for interaction. So, if the spirit moves you, interact!


Librarium Magicum
by Clay H. Shevlin*

What makes a bibliography successful? Few of us book collectors probably spend much time pondering this question, perhaps thinking it a matter more properly reserved for academic discussion. Yet, we frequently consult bibliographies [FN1] and they are usually an indispensable component of our libraries. Moreover, I suspect that, at one time or another, as we have perused a bibliography, we have found ourselves wishing that the compiler had presented his information in a manner that better suited our needs. So perhaps this question is more relevant than it seems at first blush.

Dedicated conjuring bibliographies have been a part of our literature for more than a century. Henry Ridgely Evans Bibliography of Natural Magic and Prestidigitation is commonly regarded as the first dedicated conjuring bibliography, appended at the rear of Albert A. Hopkins (comp. & ed.) Magic Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions including Trick Photography (New York: Munn & Co., 1897). Since then, whether issued as stand alone publications or in periodicals, many dozens of English-language bibliographies have been published, some of which have (often times, by implication) attempted to list all of the conjuring books and pamphlets ever published prior to the time in question, while others have attempted to cover a more modest subset of our literature. Regardless, however, of the scope of these bibliographies, it is axiomatic that each has its shortcomings wedded to its merits, as all bibliophiles learn soon enough.

So what are the characteristics of a successful bibliography? Perhaps not surprisingly, the answer varies, and will depend to a large degree on which end-user is responding to the question [FN2]. For example, if the end-user is relatively new to magic, and wants to begin building a library which meets his needs, then a bibliography which lacks relatively detailed annotations addressing the importance, content and merit of the books in question and only provides basic bibliographical information is not very helpful. On the other side of the extreme, for experienced collectors who seek detailed bibliographical information so they can distinguish between different editions, issues and states of certain titles, a short-title bibliography is equally unhelpful. So even within the relatively narrow field of bibliography, different kinds of bibliographies serve different needs. But before we discuss in more detail the varying styles, format and content of available bibliographies, lets talk about certain characteristics and standards that are relevant to all good bibliographies.

Arguably the most important characteristic of a good bibliography is accuracy. All folks who have collected books and consulted bibliographies for even a modest period of time have found mistakes in the bibliographies they have consulted. Errors are the bogeyman for compiler and collector alike. For the compiler, they are embarrassing and frustrating. For the collector, they can create the chase of a ghost. As regrettable and detestable as they are, mistakes reflect the human condition, and no bibliography is error-free. Some errors are less egregious than others. Typographical errors are the least offensive, largely because many of them are obvious to the reader and/or they are not the source of significant misinformation. Further up the egregiousness scale is the error of omission, one in which the compiler fails to include a title which, arguably or not, should have been included (well discuss this in more detail a little later). The worst kind of mistake is the so-called error of commission. Generally speaking, an error of commission occurs when the compiler has presented the information just as he intended but the information is objectively wrong!

Completeness is probably the second most important criterion of a good bibliography. Simply put, the more complete a bibliography is within its stated scope, the more successful it is, and the broader the scope of the bibliography, the better the chance that it will be incomplete. [FN3] Virtually no broadly-scoped bibliography is complete.

Accuracy and completeness are by far the two most critical elements of a quality bibliography. But there are a few other things worth noting in this discussion. When considering the idea of completeness, the concept of scope was introduced. The scope of a bibliography is the criteria used to determine whether or not a title should be included in that bibliography. A good bibliography clearly articulates its scope and contains only the publications within its stated scope. But its not always easy to clearly state the scope of a bibliography, and the problems only magnify when the compiler faces the task of sticking to his scope in selecting which titles to include and exclude from his bibliography.

Raymond Toole Stotts classic two-volume work, A Bibliography of English Conjuring (Derby: Harpur & Sons, 1976 and 1978) can be used to help illustrate these difficulties. [FN4] At first glance, Toole Stotts criteria seem simple enough: all conjuring books and pamphlets published on or prior to 1876. But how much conjuring needs to be in a book in order to merit inclusion? Some titles listed in BEC have very little or even no conjuring. [FN5] Where does one draw the line if a book has characteristics of a periodical? In some cases, Toole Stott has listed titles that we would all readily classify as magazines. What about undated titles? Should undated titles which might have been published after 1876 be included? These examples are not intended to reflect poorly on Raymond Toole Stott; rather, they should demonstrate the enormous and sometimes intractable difficulties that face a compiler when he is trying to define the scope of his bibliography and then execute that scope in his selection of titles.

The knowledge and abilities of the compiler are also crucial to the success of a bibliography. Obviously, a compiler must be very familiar with the subject matter of his bibliography if he is to have any hope of producing a useful bibliography. Familiarity with the subject matter is even more critical when annotations are included which purport to analyze the content of a book and assess its importance, merits and utility (or lack thereof). A compiler must also keep his biases in check if he is to faithfully serve his readers, unless his bibliography is really intended and is clearly stated to be a recommended reading list.

[to be continued]

FOOTNOTES

* With the editors kind indulgence, this proud father would like to record for posterity that his son, Lucas Kai Shevlin, was born on September 23, 2006.
1 For purposes of this article, the term bibliography is used in its broadest and most commonly used, non-technical sense; that is to say, a bibliography is a list of books, periodicals and/or articles, whether in a brief format (such as Evans compilation), or in a more detailed format (such as Raymond Toole Stotts compilation). Some people who are familiar with the more technical meanings of the term bibliography might argue that a true conjuring bibliography has yet to be produced, but that discussion will be saved for another day.
2 Since the goal of a bibliography is to communicate information to the reader (i.e., the end-user), it seems appropriate to focus on his/her wants and needs. The success of a bibliography could certainly be judged from the perspective of the compiler, but no matter how successful a bibliography may be using the compilers standards, if his bibliography is not used or usable by others, his efforts are nothing more than a private exercise in enumeration.
3 For example, a compiler has a much better chance of achieving completeness if his scope is all books authored by Bill Severn versus, say, all books authored or translated by Professor Hoffmann.
4 I use Toole Stotts bibliography only because I am familiar with it. Just about any other bibliography could be used to illustrate these points.
5 Toole Stott did try to address this issue, by separating magic books from those which were closely allied with magic. But in a few cases, titles in the closely allied section have more magic in them than some in the main section!
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 12/06/06 12:11 AM

Good stuff as usual Clay.

I suspect that the answers to the error rate in bibliographies will be in the online world. Once a book is printed, it is permanent. The cost of such books, and the relatively low number of end users make reissues (if youll pardon the expression) rare. In the online world, corrections can be made constantly and new levels of information can be added to the database with relative ease. I also believe that it will likely increase the number of end users, even if there is an annual fee for membership (or what have you).

I know its not a book with all its visceral qualities, but as a tool for collectors and scholars, I cannot imagine a better way to go. (Well, okay, I can imagine one: a microchip implant that our brain can reference as needed, but thats just plain spooky.)

Dustin
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