The above image is from Boldrin and Levine’s Against Intellectual Monopoly. Specifically, it’s from the verso (back) side of the book’s title page. You know the title page? That page with the title of the book and the author’s name; that page containing information that you’ve already seen twice by the time you get to it, once on the cover and usually already again on the half-title page (more evocative known as the bastard title page)? Flip right past that that page and on its back, you will come to much more interesting information.
OK, OK, so maybe the stuff isn’t so interesting at first glance. In fact, you may have skipped over it in all the books you’ve ever read. But take a second (or first) look. What do you see?
On the verso of the title page, you should find information about the publisher of the book. This is relevant information even if you’re not interested in the publishing industry itself. After all, part of the publisher’s function is to vouch for the quality of its products, so if you’re in doubt about the suitability of the book in hand, a quick check on who the publisher is could help make up your mind on whether to give the book a chance. (This is an elitist shortcut for sure, but rules of thumbs are useful precisely because they trade precision for speed.) If you are interested in the publishing industry, then from the memoirs of people in the trade, it seems that knowing which books were published by which house is a crucial skill in the p-world. Take note!
After information about the publisher, you have some statement about the copyright rights as they pertain to the books. I find such things enormously interesting, and you may too once you realize the variety of restrictions that publishers could impose of the use of your copy of the work.
Next comes some indication of when the book was published and/or what edition and printing this particular copy represents. This is really important information if you ever decide to become a collector of, say, modern first editions. For instance, the verso of the title page shown above is from the hardcover published in 2008. What I actually have on my shelves is the paperback version, and from the back of the title page of that book, I see the following lines, “First published 2008. Reprinted 2009. First paperback edition 2010.” So I’ve learned that this is a pretty popular book; it’s been through three separate runs in three consecutive years. Should it ever become a collector’s item, I would definitely want to distinguish between the first printing of the first edition and the reprint. This isn’t as outlandish as you may think; at the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America book fair I went to, I saw a first edition, first printing of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone being sold for $3000. The regular, not-so-first edition, in contrast, can be had for a penny.
Finally, you have the Library of Congress in publication data. Where do I start with something like this? This is the Colossus in the librarian’s room. The Library of Congress has an entire department to churn out these things. Librarians work year after year on the controlled vocabularies that go into it. From what I hear, librarians can get quite worked yo on proposing and implementing rules on the authority headings. While the fate of civilizations doesn’t quite hang on us getting this right, this is important stuff nonetheless. It’s the backbone of not only every library’s organizational system but also big book retailers. ISBNs and the rest of the metadata included in the Library of Congress in publication data are crucial for inventory and other commercial transactions. I hope we get it right!
So cool is the verso of the title page, eh? Next time you pick you a book, skip right over the ostentatious title page, but do look at its verso. May the Nerd Force be with you!