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Submitted by admin on 07 Apr. 2011
Manuscripts are unique items, though many of them are similar and share general characteristics. A hard and fast set of regulations, which few will follow and others will not understand, has, therefore, less relevance for manuscripts than printed books and allows me to present my remarks more as an essay than a formulary. Much of what really matters is, in truth, predetermined by the honesty, integrity and sense of self-mortification in the cataloguer and the degree with which he seeks personally to attain perfection in terms of accuracy and straightforwardness. But such considerations have not always faced down earnest legislators in the past.

By Roy Davids

Manuscripts are unique items, though many of them are similar and share general characteristics. A hard and fast set of regulations, which few will follow and others will not understand, has, therefore, less relevance for manuscripts than printed books and allows me to present my remarks more as an essay than a formulary. Much of what really matters is, in truth, predetermined by the honesty, integrity and sense of self-mortification in the cataloguer and the degree with which he seeks personally to attain perfection in terms of accuracy and straightforwardness. But such considerations have not always faced down earnest legislators in the past.


The following are the abbreviations or 'codes' recommended by The Manuscript Society (U.S.A.) in its Criteria for Describing Manuscripts and Documents, published in 1990:


It argues for a certain redundancy in such formulas when even long-serving professionals have to check what some of them mean. Would you have known that 'AMs' means 'Autographed manuscript unsigned'? It would be a more natural interpretation to assume it implies that there is more than one manuscript under consideration (though the real abbreviation for manuscripts is MSS), and that if 'autographed' means anything it would surely suggest that the item were signed, rather than not. 'PS' turns out not to be the perhaps anticipated post-script but a 'Photograph signed' and 'AES' to be 'Autographed endorsement signed.'

There are very few absolutes in the description of post-medieval manuscripts, but one that I had drummed into me over the years and which to my mind seems sensible to insist upon is that 'autograph' be the preferred word to describe the fact that an item is in the handwriting of the stated writer and that it be used in our business, by and large exclusively, as an adjective. A corollary is that the patently misleading word 'autographed' be banished forever, even from dictionaries (it does appear in the Oxford English Dictionary). 'Autograph' can of course, in some contexts, be a noun, mostly used in the world out there as a description of the holy grail of the, mainly, schoolboy collector of signatures, as it happens the least significant personage in our business. Some scholars have a penchant for describing an autograph manuscript as 'the autograph' and the word had a nounal currency in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the plural as a generic term for a collection of letters. An allowed alternative is 'holograph', which seems to have more of a vogue in America and among academics, but personally I see no real advantage in extending its usage into the marketplace, preferring to keeps things simple.

So if I am to adopt at all the normal imperious tone of those who lay down the law in a subject it is to insist that the adjective 'autograph' is the only word that should be used in our business to convey that a manuscript is in the hand of its writer. Its use carries no implication that the item is signed.

Personally, I have such a preternatural indisposition towards abbreviations of any kind that I do not use them in my own catalogues (except pp. in references to printed works), and certainly avoid those quoted above, or any like them. I feel that 'ALS' by Milton, to describe a letter entirely in Milton's handwriting and signed by him, would rather belittle the thing.

I prefer AUTOGRAPH LETTER SIGNED and instead of AMs the more obvious and open-palmed AUTOGRAPH MANUSCRIPT UNSIGNED. But, for those who must use codes rather than spelt-out unequivocally clear descriptions, the only ones that I see used with any regularity are:

ALS - autograph letter signed (ALsS for more than one and similarly below).

AL - autograph letter unsigned. This code will include letters written in the third person which it seems rather underhand to describe as 'signed in the text' as some do.

AN is for 'autograph note', which does not have the salutation and valediction that are characteristics of a letter, and tends to be brief

LS - letter signed (the text in another hand).

TLS - typed letter signed.

AMS - autograph manuscript signed (though I haven't seen it in a while).

DS (more often Doc.s.) - document signed (the text in another hand - with TDS as a possible alternative where appropriate). ['Document' tends to describe anything which is not a letter, though this would not include text manuscripts (that is, essays or books in manuscript)].

AMuQS (could anything be more ugly?) - autograph musical quotation signed.

Since no one will understand any of the others recommended by The Manuscript Society without having to look them up there seems little point in prolonging their usage.

The reason I do not use them at all, and why I exiled them from the patois of Sotheby's when I was there, is that such 'codes' seem to me to belong to a bygone era when there was a great deal more material around, when computers were not there to produce the full phrase at one key stroke, and when their use was in some unspoken degree designed to exclude rather than be inclusive. Secret societies, guilds, mysteries, trades and other inbred organisations favour arcane terminology positively to keep others out - and, though we might choose not to recall it, at some time in our lives we have all probably gone through a phase of taking a somewhat perverse pleasure in admission through the acquisition of an argot.

But in these client-centred days, when people tiresomely seem to do what they want rather than what they are told, and particularly at a time when electronic commerce offers the possibility of vastly expanding client bases, anything that creates an obstacle or a barrier between the seller, the object and the buyer smacks of being counter-productive.


In this vein, and for the modern world, it seems to me that it is words describing right attitudes that are more important when offering advice or direction than preserving a culture which makes it difficult for others to gain admission. The imperative qualities of words such as 'demystification', 'clarity', accuracy', 'honesty', 'responsibility', 'truthfulness', and 'transparency' would tend, for instance, to limit the use of the adjective slightly to not much at all rather than its current fairly widespread and deceitful employment for anything less than terrible. Maybe here the Manuscript Society's words 'minor' and 'moderate' can be of help, but really a clear, honest and complete description of faults and defects is the best policy in terms of boosting the confidence of the buyer and ultimately wasting less of the time of the seller. In parallel ways so would straightforward descriptions of degrees of 'foxing' or other spots, browning (one of the conditions that seems rarely to be anything other than slight), brittleness, trimming, earlier cleaning, fading, chipping, laminating, silking, fraying, inlaying, repairs (professional or otherwise), mounting (laying down or sticking down at the corners), putting in a mount (called matting in America), traces (light, moderate, heavy) offormer mounting (with stains from glue etc).

There is little point, to my mind, in trying to establish strict verbal gradations of condition, since even in more regulated worlds like that of Coins and Medals 'fine' and 'extra-fine' seem often to be interchangeable, and few people dealing with manuscripts do or would use them consistently, and most have their own view of what each word means. Suffice it to say that 'fine' should, it seems to me, indicate that the item is in the same sort of condition as it would have been when new, and also convey something about the quality of the content of the manuscript as well if used at the beginning of a description before the word 'autograph'. Everything else needs to be explained rather precisely, preferably in economical and fairly commonly used terminology, much of which is readily available in Roger Gaskell's TERMS OF THE TRADE for book descriptions. This recommendation has the natural sequitur that anything which is not as it might reasonably be expected to be should be noted, especially if it might affect value.


Similarly, there is no absolutely agreed standard way of arranging the description of most post medieval manuscripts that come on the market. Any favoured style tends to be ennobled as 'the House Style', and perhaps the differences have their benefits, including bestowing a degree of 'character'. One might plead here for the word 'correction' to be limited to changes in literals and 'revision' to changes of substance, and for typescripts to be typescripts and manuscripts manuscripts - there is no reason to indulge the absurd confusion about these that pervades the publishing world.

THE NAME OF THE WRITER of the manuscript, or a category such as 'Biology' [the latter perhaps in square brackets], will begin the description, however arranged: Henry James; James, Henry; JAMES (HENRY) et cetera. The Manuscript Society recommends that the writer's dates and occupational description should follow. Auction houses have stopped doing this. Their use, however, has the merit of avoiding any possible confusion and, after all, none of us knows who everyone else is or was.

THE NATURE OF THE ITEM then, most helpfully, follows: AUTOGRAPH LETTER SIGNED, or variant. 'Autograph' in this construction means that the manuscript is absolutely in the genuine handwriting of the person to whom it is attributed. The determination of this is the single most important function of the cataloguer - he has a sacred duty to be sure that the manuscript is genuine and in the handwriting of the person he says it is. If this is not true, then almost anything else he says is a waste of time and he is, however unwittingly, allowing to pass as valuable something that is virtually worthless. Some cataloguers then indicate in round brackets the form of the signature (,Charles Dickens'; 'C.D.' etc). Since many collectors are influenced by the signature more than any other feature it seems a sensible procedure to spell it out in this way. The language, if not English, in which the manuscript is written can then follow, although it is otherwise left to come before the physical description at the end, if indeed that itself does not follow on immediately, as some prefer. The name of the recipient, perhaps with his dates and occupation are usually next in line.

THE CONTENT of the manuscript tends then to be described, mostly employing either the present participle or the third person Singular, keeping the tenses constant unless clearly delineating a change. A variant, particularly with more complicated items, is to describe the content in separate paragraphs below. It seems a natural and not unfair marketing tactic to describe the contents of a manuscript in the order of their importance, rather than doggedly reflecting the order used by the writer. Were Beethoven writing for seven pages about the conception and composition of the Eighth Symphony, it would seem rather trite to begin (as he may have done) with an enquiry after the health of his correspondent's housekeeper. But all-embracing words like the preposition 'about' are currently much abused by cataloguers. To describe a letter as being about the Eighth Symphony when that work is only mentioned in a letter otherwise mostly about the housekeeper's health, or whatever, is dishonest.

THE PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION (if it has not appeared before, after the statement, in code or in full, of the basic nature of the item) will then follow, usually in italics, each aspect delineated by commas, or occasionally by semi-colons. First will be the number of pages in numerals; usually meaning all those on which the writer has written part of his text, including any part of a page, for instance if the last page contains only a few lines - though the more important the item the more cataloguers lean towards precision and fractions, or even line and word counts. Size comes next: one could always give precise measurements, linear or metric, or both (and there are occasions when doing so is obviously right); height before width; but most readers have got used to folio (fol., c. 12 X 8 inches), quarto (4tO, c. 9 X 7 inches), octavo (8vo, c. 7 X 4.5 inches), 12mo, 16mo, and 24mo, the last two dropping out of manuscript parlance at present. These formats almost never describe the make-up of a manuscript, particularly unbound ones, in the same precise way that they describe books but rather indicate the use of book sizes as rough guides to measurement.

CONDITION statements, particularly defects, most naturally come next and need to be as exact and open-handed as possible - one cannot say anything really more useful than that.

OTHER INFORMATION at this point will include notes about the presence [incidentally, not included in the page count if no text appears on it] of an 'integral leaf' (the second, attached, leaf of the sheet), 'address leaf' (where only the address appears on the leaf, with nothing on the recto), 'integral address' (where only the address appears on the last page, but there is text on the recto) or 'integral address panel' (where a certain amount of the text is also on the page, perhaps both above and below the panel into which the letter is folded), or of a separate envelope. It is important to note if there are postal markings (MS or struck) and, after 1840, affixed stamps, since, except with forgeries, their presence tends to indicate that the item was actually sent and, less certainly, received. In a similar way, endorsements or dockets - that is notes, including primitive filing notes on the back by the recipient or a clerk - have archival and other significance, including proof of receipt, and can sometimes be more valuable than the letter on which they appear, if autograph and by someone more important or as important as the sender. The address from which the letter was sent tends to come next, and finally the date. Any elements that are less than certain or are the product of external research or speculation should appear in square brackets.

FOOTNOTES. The amount of research into the item and the length and usefulness of any footnotes will depend on the abilities and interests of the cataloguer. 'Rare' is a word that should be rarely seen. Its use too often denotes inexperience, not knowledge, and one should expect the basis for its unleashing to be stated. Items not available more than two or three times a year can genuinely be described as 'scarce'. Those who have worked in the Public Record Office will know that signatures of Henry VIII are not uncommon, though now they are 'not often available for purchase' - the last phrase containing the kernel of an acceptable definition. 'Remarkable', 'important' and 'significant' could also do with a sharp tug on the reins.

Beware/avoid the word 'interesting' - it usually means that the cataloguer thinks or hopes that the item has merit, but that he does not know, or has not troubled to find out, in what ways. Statements such as 'will reward further research' are often equally meaningless. Some dealers, particularly in America, quote extensively from, or indeed all of, the text of a letter instead of, or in addition to, writing a footnote. Except with brief items this is reprehensible, or illegal, or both. To quote more than what is considered 'fair use' [ill-defined] may result in a breach of copyright and, at worst, a lawsuit. It can also detract from the value and saleability of an item, since one of the interests of buyers - for academics and some institutions it is often the overriding factor - is to obtain unpublished material. Also, they do not need to buy something if they can quote the text from your catalogue. A dealer can take his own decisions about this, within the confines of the copyright rules, since he tends to own the item himself, though in fairness he should indicate to the buyer any liberty he has taken. Auctioneers should never permit the copying of material in their custody, especially since they do not own it, and can in doing so simultaneously damage the interests of both of their commission-paying clients, the seller and the buyer.

PRICE tends to be the last element of a description. It would better serve everyone if prices were firm, rather than subject to discount. One needs to satisfy oneself whether or not prices are inclusive of VAT.

As an envoi, perhaps I may repeat what I have written elsewhere when generalising about descriptions: 'At their best, they strive to inform without instruction, to entice without exaggeration, to describe faults accurately without being damning, and to praise where praise is possible.'

Copyright Roy Davids. The article is published in the Handbook of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association (ABA) 2010/2011, it is presented here by permission of the author.

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