The Printers’ File at AAS
What is the Printers’ File?
Since Isaiah Thomas’s research for his ambitious The History of Printing in America (1810), AAS has held the largest collection of data on the early American book trades in North America and the Caribbean. Starting in 1927, Avis Clarke, AAS’s first trained cataloger, compiled a card catalog that came to be known as the Printers’ File during her 43 year tenure here. The Printers’ File consists of 25 drawers of cards in our reading room. Culled from biographies, reference books, and newspapers, this information details the work of printers, publishers, editors, binders, and others involved in the book trades up to 1820, and book historians and genealogists have consulted these files ever since. Though the cards mainly detail the lives of people who were producing texts in English, information about people producing texts in German, French, Spanish, and Algonquian can also be found.
What do the cards in the Printers’ File contain?
We estimate that the cards hold information for some 8,000-10,000 people in the book trades, detailing basic biographical information, occupations, and firm and newspaper associations. The cards also chronicle the careers of people who were in the book trade for brief periods, of figures like Samuel Butts who started his career as a bookseller in Portland, Maine and then made his way to Boston to become a haberdasher, or of Sidney Andrews who was only a printer for the first 13 years of his working life, and then moved from Connecticut to Massachusetts to become a farmer, or of Joseph Gale who started his career as a printer in Sheffield, England and ended it as a compositor in Philadelphia.
We encourage researchers to confirm information listed on cards through the use of sources listed on the “authority cards” in the file as well as recent bibliographical sources that were not available to Clarke when she retired in 1970. In fact, no new cards nor information were added to the file after Clarke’s retirement; instead, such information was updated and added in our contributions to both the Library of Congress’s Authorities and the North American Imprints Project (NAIP). The NAIP catalog contains over 40,000 records descriptive of 17th- and 18th- century imprints, and records the locations of more than 120,000 extant copies. This catalog is a part of our General Catalog, and so our catalog offers the most comprehensive listing of pre1801 United States imprints. A name search in our catalog will therefore render the most exhaustive list possible of pre1801 imprints associated with a person in the Printers’ File. NAIP work is ongoing in the cataloging of 19th-century imprints, so imprints associated with those working in the books trades post1801 will be comprehensive, but may not be exhaustive. NAIP does not cover newspapers however, so for information about those involved in the newspaper production trades, see Clarence Brigham’s “Index of Printers” at the back of his History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820 (1947).
What is the future of the Printers’ File?
Referring to this file in his 2008 presidential address to the Bibliographical Society of America, John Bidwell remarked that “bibliographers can be grateful to the AAS for [this] valuable source of biographical information,” and pressed for the creation of a national biographical dictionary of the early American book trade. Rather than creating a dictionary, we are now transforming all of this data in a digital environment. This online database based on both the cards and our contributions to NAIP is an effort to augment the types of queries our data can answer, and also allows greater access to a resource that is currently only available in our reading room. The Database of the Early American Book Trades (DEABT) will be a relational database that can both answer complicated research queries and will contain components of linked open data that will render our data usable by other projects. Please contact our Digital Humanities Curator Molly Hardy with questions about the file or database.