Engage with the Material: Descriptive Bibliography, Finding Aids, and Metadata Assignment

Assignment first created Fall 2014, for English 500. Revised in Fall 2019.

Your assignment will depend upon the item or material you’ve chosen to work on (see below).

Learning outcomes:

  • To discover something new about an item or about material in the UVic Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA).
  • To learn to use some of the tools relevant for your particular corner of the discipline (these tools will differ for each of you).
  • To learn how to build upon existing information (e.g., descriptive bibliographies, library catalogue entries, finding aids, collection descriptions).
  • To write up your findings in a way that is compatible with a pre-existing format (such as the standard template for a descriptive bibliography entry, copy notes in a library catalogue entry, a description of archival material, a blog entry) so that we can feed this information back to SCUA to improve everyone’s knowledge of the collections.

Your specific assignment

In every case, we will co-create your specific assignment. Call up your materials at a time when I can meet with you (during Office Hours or by appointment). We’ll look at the materials together and agree upon a plan.

In NO case do I expect you to write more than the equivalent of three pages. If the sleuthing and/or analytic bibliography is difficult, we will reduce the length of the description accordingly.

Start here and follow the algorithm

Is it a book, manuscript, literary archive, or none of these three?


What does the UVic Library Catalogue entry reveal about the book and our copy thereof? What do other library catalogues reveal about the book and their copies thereof? Good catalogues to check: WorldCat; Library of Congress, National Library of Canada, British Library, British National Bibliography.

Is it a handpress (pre-1800) book or a machine press (post-1800) book?

Handpress book.  

Is there a bibliographic description of this book available? Look in scholarly editions of the work. An author’s collected works will often include bibliographic descriptions in the final volume or in appendices. Check the ESTC (English Short Title Catalogue, the online catalogue of all lknown pre-1800 books, available through the British Library website).

Bibliographic Description available: Go get the bibliographic description from the stacks and compare our copy (or copies) to the description. Compare the quasi-facsimile of the title page. Compare the signature collation. What exactly do we have in our collection? Are there any other editions or copies in Special Collections and/or in the open stacks?

Bibliographic Description not available: Ask me to help you prepare a quasi-facsimile of the title page and a signature collation. Normally, a bibliographic description describes an IDEAL copy. To describe an ideal copy, one normally has to look at many individual copies. Then, pursue the questions listed for books that do have a bibliographic description.

Machine press book.

Some possible avenues to explore: Why do we have this book in our collection? What evidence of ownership, use, rebinding, or gifting can you find in the book? Is there anything interesting about the cover or presentation of the book? Are there other copies and/or editions in SCUA and/or in the open stacks? Possible assignments include: writing a copynote for the book that we could include in the Library Catalogue; writing a blog post for the


When was this manuscript copied? What is the origin and significance of this manuscript? What can you tell about its purpose, ownership, circulation, relationship to other manscripts?  Is it a leaf, fragment, codex? Is it (or was it ever) bound with other mss? How did it come to be in our collection?

Literary Archive.

Why do we have this material? What is its significance? Who are the players therein? What sorts of materials are contained in this archival collection? What can we learn from this archives? (Check the Library’s finding aids and the Memory BC website.)

None of the above.

Make an appointment to see me in SCUA.

Possible types of specific assignments:

  • Contribute a signature collation to the library catalogue as part of a longer assignment.
  • Identify with certainty the edition, issue, and state of the text we own.
  • Write a description of the text’s physical state, provenance, and importance (for possible publication as a blog post on the library website and/or as a detailed description in the catalogue entry).
  • Write a conservation proposal.
  • Write a digitization proposal.
  • Write a proposal for a finding aid for a collection … or a guide for finding materials across collections.
  • Prepare a finding aid (if the scope is narrow enough). Example: I put together four finding aids for the Shakespeare editions in our collection. Each finding aid covered one century.
  • Undertake the work of cataloguing or describing the contents of a small collection or part of a larger collection. Example: a past student created a catalogue of all the poems published in Transvestia, a journal for which we have a complete run in the Transgender Archives.