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Compass Newsletter Masthead
   Volume III, Issue 4
April 2007   

Early American Imprints: Primary works from the Colonies and the early Nation

Falvey recently acquired the online version of Early American Imprints, Series I, also known as the Evans Collection. The Evans Collection takes its name from Charles Evans, author of the American Bibliography, an indispensable research tool that lists all imprints published in the territories of what was to become the United States. Evans' renowned bibliography includes books, pamphlets, broadsides, catalogues, statutes and more.

Plate of William Penn from The History of Pennsylvania by Robert Proud (Philadelphia: Paulson, 1797)

Prior to the acquisition of online Early American Imprints, library users had access to this unique collection only in microfiche. Researchers needed to consult the 14-volume print bibliography in the reference stacks or via the library catalog in order to find the correct fiche number, and then read the text on a microform reader.

Printed bibliographies and microform readers are now no longer necessary. Readex, the publisher of the microfiche collection, digitized the whole set and made the collection available as an online resource. Although the historical texts themselves did not change, the researcher now has a number of new options to find relevant texts.

Subjects can be browsed and are subdivided into broad subject categories such as Economics and Trade, Government, Law and Crime, Peoples, Science and Society, Manners & Customs. A list of genres makes it possible to limit a search to captivity narratives, gazetteers, chap books, cookbooks, autobiographies, diaries, obituaries, prayer books, almanacs or directories, for example. By limiting a search to directories, one can easily locate a citizen or a street in one of the directories for Boston, New York or Philadelphia included in the collection.

Ever wonder what kinds of books were read in the Colonies? Browsing the list of library catalogs included in the collection, one can find the catalogs of the Library Company of Philadelphia, the first circulating libraries and those of numerous colleges and universities, such as Harvard and Yale.

As to be expected, most of the texts are in English, but the collection also includes close to a thousand German publications, reflecting the strong German influence in the Colonies. Among them are German translations of Benjamin Franklin’s Plain Truth and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which was published in 1755 in Germantown by the prolific German printer Christopher Sower (Saur), who printed the first Bible in the Colonies. To a lesser extent, the Collection also includes works in French and other European languages as well as works in Native American languages.

The history department has embraced the Library’s recent acquisitions of online primary sources. Dr. Catherine Kerrison, who teaches early American history, uses Early American Imprints as “a foundational research tool for classes in early America, for both introductory courses and advanced seminars. It allows easy access to a wide range of voices students have never heard, from ministers' execution sermons to playbills, from obscure legislative statutes to the trendiest novels. The finding aids make browsing enjoyable. With Early American Imprints, students have early American history at their fingertips.”

The researcher can browse lists of book printers, booksellers and publishers; for example, Benjamin Franklin is listed under all three categories. The advanced search feature makes it possible to search by author, subject, genre, publisher and place of publication. Keyword searches can be limited to titles, citations and full-text. Variations in spelling may pose a challenge for the researcher, because only exact matches will be retrieved. The Help button for spelling variations is a useful feature.

The Author browse list is organized into separate categories of people, organizations and conferences. One can easily locate the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, on the list of organizations and retrieve all their publications beginning in 1686.

Since the online collection is a digitized version of the microfiche, the quality of the text images varies. Some pages are barely legible, and one wishes that the publisher had taken advantage of new scanning technology to create clearer images. Images are difficult to locate since they are not indexed.

Nevertheless, over 150 years of publishing history in the Colonies and the early Nation make for some very good reading on a wide variety of topics. Contemporary accounts of the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia are some prime examples.

Early American Imprints can be accessed from the library’s Databases by Title list or from the History Resources page under the Books and Primary Sources tabs. Currently, the records in VUCat for the individual works in the Evans Collection do not have links to the online texts, but these will be added in the near future. The online collection is accessible from anywhere at any time and pages can be downloaded as image files.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on this new resource. Your feedback is always welcome.


Contributed by Jutta Seibert.