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The John Carter Brown Library at Brown University

Introduction of the John Carter Brown Library’s 
Director, Norman Fiering
Introductory remarks by David R. Whitesell

When in 1552 Francisco López de Gómara dedicated his history of the conquest of Mexico to Charles V, he said: “Most excellent Lord[,] the greatest event since the creation of the world … is the discovery of the [Americas].” His comment was echoed two centuries later by Adam Smith, who probably did not realize how prescient these 1776 remarks would be: “[T]he discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind.”

Although quick to import and exploit the New World’s resources, Europe was slow to export one of its own chief resources: printing. A press was established in Mexico by 1539, Peru by 1584, and Cambridge by 1640, but many locales in the vast American hemisphere did without during much of the colonial period. Efforts to collect, preserve, and study the printing history of the Americas were likewise delayed until undertaken by pioneers such as Thomas Prince and Isaiah Thomas.

From its founding in 1846 as the private collection of John Carter Brown—and since 1901 an independent center for advanced research in history and the humanities located at Brown University—the John Carter Brown Library has been at the forefront of these efforts. That the JCB has carefully assembled what is probably the world’s finest collection of primary printed sources pertaining to the discovery, exploration, and history of the colonial Americas—North and South—might be reason enough for an award. But the JCB and its dedicated staff have consistently excelled in applying these unequalled resources to the practice of printing history.

The contributions of George Parker Winship, Lawrence C. Wroth, and Thomas R. Adams—to mention only a few JCB staff—to the history and bibliography of colonial North American printing and cartography are well known. Of equal importance are the JCB’s model fellowship and exhibition programs, which have enabled scholars from around the world to study its holdings and to disseminate their findings, not only in books and articles, but in exhibition catalogs of permanent value. Knowing that American imprints are usefully studied in conjunction with their European counterparts, the JCB has long paid these close attention, culminating in the monumental six-volume bibliography, European Americana.

More recently, under the direction of Norman Fiering, the JCB has done much to cultivate “book history” in Latin America. In 1987 the JCB hosted a landmark conference on “The Book in the Americas,” and I am sure that many of you have seen the superb traveling exhibition and catalog which complemented it. The JCB has also been enlarging its enviable holdings of Latin American and Brazilian imprints, which it plans to document in several forthcoming book catalogs. By cataloging these to the highest standards, and by sharing the information with bibliographical databases such as the online Latin American STC, the JCB is once again laying the groundwork which will pay rich scholarly dividends.

For over 150 years the John Carter Brown Library has made printing history its special province, an enduring achievement which the AmericanPrinting History Association gratefully recognizes with this award.

Acceptance Remarks of Norman Fiering, Library Director
Note: APHA presented its 2006 Institutional Award to the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University for its leadership in collecting, preserving, and promoting the printing history of the colonial Americas, North and South. [Read the citation.]

These acceptance remarks were delivered by Library Director Norman Fiering at APHA’s annual meeting held at the New York Public Library on January 28, 2006, and have been slightly revised for presentation on the web.

On behalf of the JCB, I want to express our gratitude for this recognition from APHA. I hope I do not appear immodest when I say that, taking the long view, the Library deserves it, and not because of anything that has happened there since I have been the Director, although I have tried to do my part.

APHA is 30-some years old; the JCB is more than 150 years old, and so strong is the tradition at the Library of attention to printing history that one might say that the JCB was a division of the American Printing History Association before there was such an Association.

One thinks immediately, of course, of two of my predecessors, George Parker Winship and Lawrence Wroth, whose combined service at the head of the JCB covers about fifty years. Their contributions to the field in the first half of the 20th century were seminal. Some of Winship’s most fundamental work was done after he had moved from the John Carter Brown Library in 1915 and taken a post at Harvard, but he left an indelible impression on the Library (to use a printing metaphor).

For Winship, I am thinking, for example, of “Early Mexican Printers,” published in 1899; Rhode Island Imprints, 1727-1840, published in 1914; “French Newspapers in the U. S., 1790 to 1800 ” (1920); Gutenberg to Plantin: An Outline of the Early History of Printing (1926); and most well known, perhaps, The Cambridge Press, 1638-1692, published in 1945.

Wroth was thirteen years younger than Winship and came to the JCB in 1923. His Printing in Colonial Maryland had appeared the year before. His work on Abel Buell of Connecticut, the first type-cutter and caster in English America, appeared in 1926. And in1931, he published his much esteemed The Colonial Printer, which concerned British America, but like Winship, Wroth was hemispheric in outlook. He wrote on the book arts in early Mexico, and on the origins of typefounding in North and South America. He was also keenly interested in prints and maps, and in 1946, with Marian Adams, published a catalogue of American Woodcuts and Engravings.

The tradition at the JCB goes back even earlier, to John Russell Bartlett, the first librarian, less well known than his successors, perhaps, but an extraordinary bookman in every sense. He served as John Carter Brown’s personal librarian from 1855 until Brown’s death in 1874 and then continued in that role for John Carter Brown’s widow and sons until his own death in 1886.

Bartlett compiled the first catalogues of the John Carter Brown Library, known as the Bibliotheca Americana, beginning in 1865. Those early catalogues remain splendid examples of bookmaking, aside from their exemplary content as bibliographical records. The catalogues were awarded a medal at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.

During most of the years that Bartlett served the Brown family as librarian, he was at the same time the elected Secretary of State of Rhode Island, offering estimable service in that post, among other things assembling for the first time the earliest archives of the state and publishing them in ten volumes under the title, Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations 1636-1792. That Bartlett arranged to have fifty copies of this publication printed on large paper, at his own expense, shows a consciousness of the importance of presentation.

Bartlett was always into projects, as a lexicographer, historian, bookseller, documentary editor, bibliographer, extra-illustrator, and distinguished artist. We will be publishing this spring a brief autobiographical memoir left by Bartlett, which records a life of remarkable accomplishment.

I want to quote from a not untypical page, representing Bartlett’s unflagging energy and enterprise:

When the late rebellion broke out [i.e., the Civil War], I commenced the collection of slips from the newspapers relating to it. I thought the war might last about a year; nevertheless, having begun the work, I continued it, scarcely omitting a day without clipping & pasting. I think that I labored on an average three hours a day for four years.

After mentioning the several newspapers from which he clipped articles, he continued:

At the same time, I collected all the pamphlets and books appertaining to the war that I could lay my hands on. . . . My collection finally increased so much that towards the end of the war, I found that a catalogue was necessary, in order that I might know what I had. I therefore with much labor made a catalogue. When it was completed, I thought it would be better for me to include in it every thing that had been published relating to the war, whether I owned it or not. I accordingly carried out this plan, and furthermore included in it the titles of all publications appertaining to American Slavery. This seemed properly to belong to the subject, as it was the cause of the war, while emancipation was its result. Then, in order that others might derive benefit from my labors, I published the catalogue, under the title, The Literature of the Rebellion. . . .

We see in this account that familiar, quite logical sequence, one act leading to the other, almost like destiny: collecting, cataloguing, publishing. That catalogue of works relating to the Civil War came to a massive 477 pages, and once more, Bartlett tells us regarding presentation: “Of this work 250 copies were printed in royal 8vo, and 80 copies in 4to.”

In this instance, Bartlett was primarily interested in content, not in the history of printing as such, but he was immersed in print throughout his life, a phenomenon not uncommon in the second half of the nineteenth century, which was, in my opinion, the high point of book culture in the West.

Book collecting and cataloguing are obviously a kind of preparation for the study of the history of printing, as such, a point that I will come back to.

One of Bartlett’s specialties was extra-illustration, the original hyper-text, taken literally. He could expand a work of two volumes into a work of ten volumes with his left hand, and did so in several instances. He lists in his memoir 21 books to which he gave this treatment. For example:

Bryan’s Dictionary of Painters and Sculptors, 2 vols, extended to ten volumes with 2,000 illustrations. Marshall’s Life of Washington, 5 vols. Extended to ten volumes. Drake’s Dictionary of American Biography, 1 vol., extended to 7 volumes, with 1,135 portraits.

Enough about Bartlett for the moment.

Again going back to the beginning of the 20th century, and the JCB as a proto- division of APHA, there is Daniel Berkeley Updike, the founder of the Merrymount Press and the author of Printing Types, Their History, Forms, and Use (1922), in two volumes, a work that has been referred to as the printers’ bible.

Updike was a close friend of one of John Carter Brown’s sons, Harold Brown, who died prematurely in 1900 at age 35, and because of that association, as well as for other reasons, Updike did all of the early printing for the JCB.

At the Library we take for granted these productions for forty years by our “house printer,” so to speak, but Updike collectors are dazzled. In 1916 Updike joined the Board of Governors of the Library, at that time called the Committee of Management and consisting of only five persons. He remained a member of the Committee, and thus was intimately associated with the JCB, until just before his death in December 1941.

In 1935, Updike gave the JCB a bible printed at Lyons in 1550 by Sebastian Gryphius. In the JCB annual report for that year, the gift was recognized as follows: “The book is surely one of the great works of typography of its time. It is printed in folio, in double column in a large letter, and it notably demonstrates the clarity, dignity, and elegance that mark the best French printing of the first half of the sixteenth century.”

At Updike’s death, the Library’s Committee of Management included in its memorial minute these words: “In the business of the Library, Mr. Updike gave of the best he had in judgment and action. . . . His devotion to the ideal of quality in doing and thinking, his reliance upon simple integrity in the large and small things of life, made him incomparable as an adviser and friend.”

Bartlett, Winship, Updike, Wroth, takes us up to about 1960. That’s a great legacy, which I would not dare to say has been continued in its full glory since then. My immediate predecessor, Tom Adams, is certainly one of the pre-eminent bibliographers of the second half of the twentieth century, but he made no substantial contributions to the technical history of printing, although he became an expert on the London printers Mount and Page. Adams is renowned for his fundamental bibliographies of both British and American political pamphlets printed during the revolutionary period, 1764 and 1783.

Less well known is Adams’s bibliography of English Maritime Books Printed before 1801, compiled with David W. Waters, which in 1995 the JCB published jointly with the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, in 400 copies. Maritime books may appear to be an esoteric subfield in the history of printing in England before 1800, but in fact it is central to the history of English printing in this period.

It has been said (and maybe it’s true) that the most frequently printed “genre” of all books printed in England in the eighteenth century was the maritime book, in all of its many facets–– navigation manuals, seamanship manuals, shipbuilding manuals, hydrographic texts, navigation tables, books on tides and currents, books on health at sea, books on gunnery, books on nautical instruments, and so forth.

To take just one example from Adams and Waters, almost at random, a work called The Boate Swaines art, or the compleat boate swaine, by Henry Bond, first printed in London in 1642. This book appeared in later editions in 1664, 1670, 1676, 1677, 1695, 1699, 1716, 1726, 1736, 1764, 1772, 1775, 1781, 1784, 1787–140 years and at least 15 editions!

Another instance, even more staggering, is Andrew Wakely, The Mariners compass rectified. This book first appeared in London in 1665(maybe even earlier but no copies have survived) and was re-issued 57 times––that’s right 57 times––before 1800. The last one in the 18th century was published in 1796, 131 years since the first edition was printed.

The JCB owns 11 editions of Wakely’s Mariners compass, of the 57 issued before 1800, and we would be happy to acquire more, a fact that may need explanation. Our mission, unchanged by hardly a hair since 1846 when the Library was founded, is above all to collect and preserve contemporary printed and manuscript records relating to the history of the Americas, North and South, during the colonial period.

Maybe half of the JCB collection consists of works printed in the Americas (from the beginning of printing in this hemisphere in Mexico in ca. 1540) and half of works printed in Europe about America, beginning with seven pre-1500 editions of Columbus’s “Letter” from 1493 announcing his discovery. We collect European maritime history because the European conquest of the oceans was the precondition of the discovery, exploration, settlement, and development of the Americas, and hence an integral part of the story. War, commerce, empire, at the time, all depended upon prowess at sea.

To come back now to John Russell Bartlett as a collector of Civil War material and what might be called inadvertent or indirect contributions to printing history. The JCB, I often tell people, is one of the few rare book institutions in the U. S. that collects intensively on a large scale. I mean we collect intensively not just for one or several authors, or one or several printers, or a particular geographical region, but intensively for the whole of the history of the Americas, from Hudson Bay to Patagonia, from 1492 to ca. 1825 in seventeen different European languages, plus Native American languages.

Eleven editions of Wakely’s Mariners compass is not unusual at the John Carter Brown Library. We have 30 editions of Antoniode Solís’s Historia de la conquista de Mexico, first published in Madrid in 1684. We have copies printed not only in Spain, but in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy, England, Germany, and Denmark, all before 1800.

When as a committee at the Library we make our acquisitions decisions from week to week, one rarely hears the argument that we should not buy a particular work because we already have ten editions or three translations; more often that fact is presented as a good reason to buy, because we are striving for totality: copies of every single title printed in the Americas to the end of the colonial period in each country, in every edition, and similarly, copies of every European book with a mention of the Americas before 1825. We can never achieve that totality, but it is a guiding aspiration.

We do not routinely collect to document printing history as such, but of course, the JCB, because of its policy of intensive collecting––i.e., its goal to become denser and denser as a collection, not broader in time or space––is a marvelous resource for the study of printing history.

This leads me to a few final remarks about more recent initiatives at the Library. Our holdings of works printed in the Spanish empire in America are unrivaled in the world (7,000 titles in all)––with the strongest concentrations for Mexico and Peru, the two principal centers of the press in the early years, but also including Guatemala, Argentina, Chile, and so forth. Naturally, we felt an obligation to promote the study of printing history in Latin America, which Bartlett, Winship, and Wroth all had taken an interest in.

Moreover, the rising fashion in the early 1980s of the study of the history of the book in France, England, Germany, and the U. S., gave us a good opportunity to call attention to Latin America. In 1988, we organized a memorable international conference at the Library entitled, “The Book in the Americas: The Role of Books and Printing in the Development of Culture and Society in Colonial Latin America.” One of my greatest regrets as Director of the JCB for twenty-three years is that we never did publish the papers from that unprecedented conference, which all of those who were present still recall with appreciation. Those papers were full of new information, especially new information made available for the first time in the English language.

I referred earlier to that compelling natural sequence of collecting, cataloguing, publishing, with the last meaning printing on paper. That sequence is generally short-circuited these days to: collecting, cataloguing,visit it online. Institutions now take inordinate pride in the fact that they have abandoned publication on paper, but I am not convinced it is such a great virtue in all cases.

At the JCB I have continued to operate in the faith that for many purposes the printed book is the ultimate convenience, and we have no less than five real, not virtual, publications in the pipeline that are simply specialized subject catalogues of a particular part of the JCB collection as a whole: a catalogue of our Portuguese and Brazilian Books, a catalogue of books with American Indian language content, a catalogue of our Chilean imprints, a catalogue our Peruvian imprints, and the final two volumes of a catalogue of our holdings of works in the German language (all relating to America, of course). In all of these areas the JCB’s holdings are matchless or nearly so, and hence these printed catalogues will serve as yardsticks against which to measure similar collections elsewhere.

None of these publications will sell more than 300 or 400 copies, and of course, they are expensive to compile and produce. Moreover, all of the data, i.e., the cataloguing records on which these books are based, are available online, and what is worse, because we are actively continuing to acquire books in all of these areas, these printed catalogues will be out-dated a month after they are published.

We have words like “bibliomania” to refer to insane book collecting. Is there a word to describe an insane desire in the cyber-era to continue to put into print bibliographical data or specialized subject catalogues? Typomania? Vanity?

Our typomania goes even further because the JCB supports the use of letterpress whenever it can prudently do so. Our letterhead and some other official JCB publications are printed letterpress, which we do for reasons beyond the aesthetic, although that alone is compelling. We do it on principle. Institutions heavily invested in the history of printing should help to support the traditional trades.

With regard to teaching and research in the field, the JCB, along with several other rare book libraries, offers, thanks to Bill Reese, a fellowship every year for research on book history and the history of printing.

On a grander scale, in 2001 several members of the Library’s Board of Governors came up with $1 million to create an endowed visiting professorship in historical bibliography and the history of the book. Named in memory of Charles H. Watts II, who served on our Board for twenty years, the JCB makes arrangements with either the History Department or the English Dept. at Brown University to appoint this visiting professor each year, who teaches a semester-length course, in the Library, on book history.

This course is for credit at Brown University, which is necessary if undergraduates are going to pay attention, but, regrettably, no academic department wants to host true technicians in the history of the book or in typography; so the education the students receive in the history of printing is relatively superficial. Book history in only the most general sense is the norm.

You are all no doubt familiar with this problem, which has arisen on various campuses, of how to fit the history of printing into the present organization of the disciplines and the passing trends in academe.

The Rhode Island bibliophiles group, the John Russell Bartlett Society, which was founded at the JCB in 1983, offers a prize for undergraduate book collecting, the Margaret B. Stillwell Prize, and the dream was that the Watts professorship would stimulate that interest on campus and increase the sophistication of young collectors. That may be happening at Brown, but to a limited degree thus far.

We have the resources on the Brown campus right now, thinking of the John Hay Library as well as the JCB, to substantially direct undergraduate attention to the study of printing and to “rare books” as objects, but this potential has not yet been fully realized. It’s a worthy goal, however, and we may yet get there.

Once more, on behalf of the great institution that I represent, and its distinguished past, I want to express my gratitude to APHA for the honor it has bestowed upon us.

Norman Fiering, Director
John Carter Brown Library 
January 28, 2006
Posted with the author’s permission. Copyright remains with the author.

The awards were presented during the Annual Meeting of the American Printing History Association, on Saturday, January 28, 2006, in the Trustees Room (2nd floor), New York Public Library, Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, New York City. A reception followed.