One Hundred Rare Book Terms
Illumination — Jobbing
Illumination: The art of decorating books by hand, ranging from simple elaborations of letters with crosshatching to full-blown miniature landscapes drawn in the margins. Illumination is an art that was predominantly practiced in the Middle Ages, but it is still alive today. Medieval illuminators are (in)famous for their sense of whimsy and there are entire social media sites dedicated to ferreting out amusing illuminations of knights riding on snails, monkeys performing medical procedures, and cats engaging in household chores.
Imposition: The process of arranging type on the printing press so that that they appear on the paper in the right sequence after folding. Bibliographic format is dependent on proper imposition for it to work properly. Sometimes, printers would also print formats smaller than folio by a process called “half-sheet imposition” where the printed sheet would be cut in half to result in two smaller gatherings. A quarto by half-sheet imposition, for instance, would have one sheet of paper produce two smaller sheets, each of which can be folded in half to produce a gathering of two leaves.
Imprint: An identification of the printer responsible for producing a given book. Up until the late 1500s, the imprint usually appeared at the back of a book and was synonymous with the colophon, but it was eventually moved to the title page. Many printer’s imprints also included their devices or logos as printers did their best to draw attention to themselves and establish a loyal customer base.
Impression: A technical term for the number of copies printed at one time, i.e., without removing the type or plates from the press. This is distinct from the edition (all copies of a book printed from one setting of type) and an issue (all copies put on sale at a given time). Impressions are tied to a fixed point in time and, after the invention of stereotyping in the 18th century, the term became more useful in terms of determining chronology than edition.
Incunable: A term for books printed in Europe between 1455 and 1500. The term derives from the Latin word incunabulum, meaning “cradle” as a reference to this period as the “cradle of printing.” The term is completely ahistorical and there is little difference in quality or style between books printed in 1499 and 1500, but it marks a convenient stopping point for studies focused on early printing.
Initial: A term for when the first letter of a chapter or section is distinguished from other letters by its greater size and/or decoration. This practice began in the medieval manuscript tradition and was carried over by early printers, who either had initials added by a scribe or used a woodcut block to print the letter.
Intaglio printing: A term for illustration processes where the design is cut into a surface, either with a tool (engraving) or with acid (etching). Intaglio printing is the opposite of relief printing and is recognizable because it results in white lines on a black background. Generally speaking, intaglio prints have to printed separately from the text (unless the text is also cut into the intaglio plate) and were usually the purview of a specialist printer. Common forms of intaglio printing include engraving (whether in copper, steel, or wood), etching, drypoint, mezzotint, and aquatint.
Issue: A technical term for the number of copies of a book put on sale at any given time. This is distinct from an edition (all copies of a book printed from a single setting of type) and an impression (all copies printed at one time). Issues are distinct units of sale and are often described as such: 300 paper copies and 10 vellum copies, for instance, would be a description of an issue.
Italic: A style of letter in both manuscript and print. In manuscripts, italic refers to a style of handwriting prevalent in Italy during the early modern period. In printing, italic characters tend to be slanted and thinner than their roman counterparts. In both contexts, italic is associated with humanism.
Jobbing: A term for small, quick side-projects undertaken by printers, typically ephemeral in nature. The term is short for “job printing” and was a staple of printing for much of its history. It was often used by printers to earn money to pay bills and finance other, larger projects. Gutenberg himself undertook job printing, printing papal indulgences in 1454 even before he completed the first printed Bible.