Rare Book Monthly

Articles - July - 2006 Issue

For Printed Materials: The Probability of Appearance

Munselliana.photo

Joel Munsell: the fastidious bibliographer


By Bruce McKinney

It is becoming possible to estimate the print runs of perhaps 150,000 antiquarian items, whose printing histories were never recorded, based on formulas that compare detailed printing records provided by Joel Munsell to the number of copies found in the OCLC, appearances at auction and sightings on listing sites and eBay. The goal is a new statistical measure that projects "probability of appearance" for books and ephemera. The internet has made it possible for millions of items to be offered but what is the likelihood what you are looking for will show up? I think we can know.

Munsell's material, published over a fifty year period in the 19th century, covered an extensive range of subjects and was printed in formats that range from 8-page pamphlets to 400-page books. He documented his printing history and it comes down to us today as a basis for comparison to copies in institutional, auction and listing venues. He published a directory of 2,268 printings and documented a thousand items, published between 1834 and 1870, with bibliographic details and the quantities printed.

For book dealers, collectors, auction houses and libraries such information may in time become part of a printing's essential facts. The initial print run is but one factor in calculating "probability of appearance" but it is an essential one that combined with appearances in various databases, historical data and bibliographic details may make it possible to construct an index with implications for all collectible printed materials.

The theory is simple algebra and the objective to solve for the unknown. Munsell provides half the variables and modern databases and listing sites the other. In Munsell's case, with both sides known, we should be able to establish the range of variation with some precision and apply this range broadly to material that lacks the quantity printed but is otherwise bibliographically complete.

For this we owe a debt to Joel Munsell, the Albany, New York printer, who maintained extensive records of the various books and pamphlets he printed during his career. In Bibliotheca Munselliana: A Catalogue of the Books and Pamphlets issued from the Press of Joel Munsell from the year 1828 to 1870, he detailed 2,268 book and pamphlet printing jobs including the quantity printed for about 1,000 of them. Using the information he provides it's possible to compare his quantities with their appearances in library inventories, at auction and on listing sites. With these numbers we can estimate survival statistics and in time "probabilities of appearance."

In this article I examine Munsell's production for the period 1834 through 1840 for which he identifies 104 items. I then focus on 64, all books and pamphlets, for which he provides the quantities printed and compare these quantities to the number of copies found in the OCLC today. Let's take a look.

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