Literary Research with Primary Sources

Analyzing Historical Printed Editions

In addition to consulting an author's manuscripts, you can also study "stories behind stories" by focusing on elements of book design and production.

Consciously or unconsciously, people in the past made decisions about how books should look. Those decisions can often help us situate a book in its larger historical context. As Harvard professor Leah Price puts it, "Words are only one of the channels through which a book conveys information."

Here are some physical characteristics of books to consider when doing literary research with historical editions:


  • Large or small? Spacious or cramped? What might that say about cost, quality, audience, or intended use of book, etc.?
  • Is it a historical font? Does that have a cultural meaning? (Ex., Gothic vs. humanist fonts)

Binding / paper

  • Is the binding hand-made or mass produced (publisher's binding)?
  • Is the paper cheap, expensive, large, small, colored, etc.?
  • What might the binding and paper suggest about the book's cost, audience, cultural significance, etc.?

Frontispiece / title page design

  • Is the frontispiece an allegorical or other type of image that instructs the reader on how to use or interpret the book?
  • Does the design hint at a cultural connection that the author or publisher might be trying to make?
  • What is missing? Why? (Ex., author's name if it was a woman.)

Size / format

  • Does the book's size surprise you? Why might this size have been chosen? 
  • How does the size / format suggest that this book was originally used?
  • Did the size / format remain the same in later editions? If not, why?

Ownership / provenance

  • Does the copy you are looking at have any unique inscriptions? Notes? Other writing?
  • Can you figure out who owned and/or read the book? Where? Does that surprise or interest you?
  • Does the book have a subscriber list? What does that tell you?

Text vs. context

  • Judging from this edition, what was it like to read this text at the time of its production or at another point in history?
  • What does this edition emphasize differently from other editions? (Or the manuscript?)
  • Has something been added to the author's original text (notes, essays, commentary, etc.)? If so, how does that suggest this edition was intended to be used?
  • Does the edition contain ads or other unrelated material? What can you deduce from that?
  • Is the text you are studying surrounded by other texts that make you see it differently?


  • Do the illustrations surprise you in any way?
  • What purpose did the illustrations originally serve? Did they change in later editions?
  • Did they add to the book's cost or affect its audience?


  • Did a previous reader add something to the book (notes, drawings, mementos, etc.) that might tell us something about what the book meant to him or her? 
  • Can you find evidence of how the author's, editor's, and/or publisher's intentions for the book were thwarted by readers?


Other questions to consider

  • Are any of the above characteristics conveyed by the original manuscript?
  • How much control do you think the author had over the final product?
  • What role did people other than the author (editors, publishers, artists, etc.) play in the book's history?
  • Where was the book published? Is that significant?
  • Find a translation of the book into another language. What's different about its "packaging"?




W. M. Thackeray, The Virginians, in original parts, 1857-59

W. M. Thackeray, The Virginians,
in original parts, 1857-59
(UNM Library, Special Collections)