The standard reference for the classic lenses is Kingslake, which is hard to find and expensive. I've looked at it at the library, but don't own my own copy. There is another book by Neblette that's not too bad, but has some obvious errors.

What can be done with this knowledge is that you can start to look for and select lenses based on the qualities you like. I've discovered that I like Heliars for portraits, so I've made a point of looking for heliar-type lenses for different formats. They're not all so great, and the effect can vary, but you can try things and sell them if you don't like them, usually without any loss. My favorite portrait lens for 35mm is a 100mm/3.5 Kodak Ektar, which is a coated heliar type lens, which I cannibalized from a defunct Kodak Medalist camera to use on my Canon F-1N. Lanthars and Apo-Lanthars are heliar-types. Leitz Hektors are generally Heliars, but are considered less desirable among Leicaphiles. I also discovered that the Canon FD 100/2.8 Macro is a heliar, but I haven't tried that one.

It also does help you sort out the odd lenses and figure out what they might be able to do without having to test each one. A 240mm artar-type lens probably won't cover 8x10" at infinity, but a dagor-type probably will cover stopped down and should have decent contrast, and say you find some obscure 16" double anastigmat made around 1910 by an English or French manufacturer in good condition at a nice price, and you need something that covers 12x20"--it would be a good bet that it would work, and you would be very hard pressed to find a Goerz Dagor of that focal length.
Or when someone shows you a 1912 Zeiss Planar, you'll know that despite the brand name and the big maximum aperture, this is an uncoated lens with lots of glass-air surfaces, so don't expect it to have good contrast.