FRBR, Before and After: The Work

We live today with an abundance of “product”—there are more books than readers who want them, as evidenced by the copious piles on remainder racks at our bookstores. It wasn’t always thus, of course. Before the advent of printing, each copy was unique and there were few of them. Printing brought exact copies, but it also brought editions, as printers throughout Europe produced their own versions of texts. One European intellectual of the 1500s, Conrad Gessner, felt a need to gain some control over this tsunami of works; he set out to create a universal bibliography of all works in print, but not all of the various editions of the works. Gessner’s Bibliotheca Universalis was in part a response to what he saw as wasteful duplication among printers, and he hoped that a list of available works would lead them to concentrate on new works rather than reprinting works already on the market (Serrai and Serrai 2005). Here it can be said that Gessner obviously did not understand the economics of the book trade.

In my research I have not uncovered the tipping point that led library thinkers like Seymour Lubetzky and Eva Verona to take up the question of the work versus the edition. Yet somehow between the latter part of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, it appears that the number of different editions in libraries had become burdensome to users. Although it was still essential to distinguish between editions, it also became important to inform the user that a certain group of editions represented the same work. In just a little over one hundred years we had come full swing from presenting users solely with works, then solely with editions, to needing to gather editions back into their work groups.

Karen Coyle, FRBR, Before and After: The Work