Clifford Kenyon Shipton and the Early American Imprints

    By James E. Mooney

    CLIFFORD K. Shipton is remembered with admiration and affection by his colleagues, students, and other friends who have manifold reasons to recall his personal virtues. There is a much larger group which has come, and will come, to remember him for his great contributions to scholarly research in books and reviews, biographies and bibliographies. That group is enlarged by those who have come to depend upon the immensity of his vision on sources and the doggedness with which he carried into reality that vision. Shipton’s place in the esteem of students of early American history is assured, and it is a high one, thanks in large part to his having made available in libraries throughout the world the complete texts of every edition and variant of every book, pamphlet, and broadside published in America from 1639 through 1800. These fifty thousand items listed in his National Index of American Imprints through 1800: The Short-Title Evans are the basis for our comprehension of our early past. The twelve hundred pages in this two-volume set, published jointly by the American Antiquarian Society and Barre Publishers in 1969, list alphabetically the 49,197 products of the American printing press which are the permanent record of the target cards for items in the Readex Microprint-American Antiquarian Society Early American Imprints, First Series. This gathering of items is as complete as his lifetime in scholarship could make it be, supported by the library staffs of the American Antiquarian Society, Harvard University Library, and many other libraries and private collections throughout the world.

    Early American Imprints was made possible by the strenuous efforts of Charles Evans who began his work in 1903 and continued it for the next three decades. His twelve volumes published were incomplete until Shipton added the thirteenth volume bringing the chronological list to its proper end with entries for half of 1799 and all of 1800. This work was at once eased and complicated by the work that had been done by the WPA imprints survey library workers of the Depression.

    Working with those slips, Shipton learned that, taking the 39,162 Evans items as a whole, about one in ten is a ghost or contains one or more serious bibliographical error and, for those periods when Evans was working against time, one item in every three is flawed. Recognizing this problem in the major source for bibliographical control over the printed materials for scholarly research was one thing, but resolving it was another.

    During the many years that Evans had been active, the Antiquarian Society had been gathering American imprints of the period before 1820 and had been making corrections on Evans based upon this new material. Under Clarence Brigham and Clifford K. Shipton this work went on into the 1940’s.

    Years before Shipton and the Society had any formal association with the Readex Microprint Corporation, he was intrigued by the possibilities of Microprint for the many purposes of scholarship. As early as 1942 he had expressed considerable interest in the Microprint edition of Three Centuries of English and American Plays, then in the planning stage. Ten years later, as that project was beginning to become more concrete in its planning for production, the Corporation and the Society began discussions on the use in microfilm for those plays held in the collections of the Society. This early example of cooperation went off with hardly a hitch.

    The next stage of cooperation was of considerably more complexity and duration, for it dealt with the origins of the Early American Imprints. In the late summer of 1954 informal discussions between Albert Boni for the Corporation and Clifford Shipton for the Society had reached a point where the relations between the two were becoming contractual. Indeed, Shipton wrote Boni on the twenty-fourth of August1 to point out a matter in a Boni letter’s legal language which Shipton the librarian thought “a good lawyer could twist it any way.” He also commended Boni on the enlistment in the project of the librarian at Harvard, Keyes Metcalf, “the giant of the library world” and Shipton’s boss in Cambridge where Shipton was archivist of the University. Shipton assured Boni that “we can assume now that we can go ahead with the project.” In late September Shipton wrote that the Council of the Society had approved participation in the cooperative project with the only question being “whether it would be possible to complete the coverage of the thirteen volumes of Evans in ten years.” Shipton enclosed his draft of the opening of the annual report to be presented to the members at the October meeting, asking if Boni might want to make suggestions for its improvement and that Shipton would be “complimented to have you use any part of it as a sales talk.” The draft was made final and appeared in the Proceedings of the Society in the Report of the Librarian for that October 1954 meeting:

    The most important event of our year has been the conclusion of an agreement with the Readex Microprint Corporation by which we shall edit and they publish in microprint form the full text of every book, pamphlet, and broadside listed in Charles Evans’ American Bibliography. Obviously the chronological approach has many advantages. It will, for example, put in a single segment of the file of microprint cards such classes as all Cambridge Press imprints, all Great Awakening tracts, or, in most cases, all the works of any one author. It would be a tragic mistake to pass up this opportunity to publish the corrections of the hundreds of errors in the original volumes of Evans which have come to light during the fifty years of research which have gone on since the first volume appeared. About one in ten of the Evans entries has something the matter with it as it stands in his volumes. There are hundreds of ghosts—titles or editions which never existed, but arose from errors in other bibliographies, or from a misunderstanding of advertisements. There are thousands of titles of which no copy can now be found; it will be a major bibliographical service to search for these and in the microprints to distinguish them from the ghosts. In hundreds of instances Evans was in error as to the identity of authors. Our own imprint catalogue records the result of fresh biographical research on every author, the dating of thousands of undated items, and the results, if any, of an actual examination of the text of each item in order to determine its relation to its fellows. In the microprint edition we propose to insert before each item a card identifying the author and giving a reference to a biography of him; and an abbreviated title, with, in the case of controversies and supplements, cross references to other items relating to this. The greater part of this information is already available in our own imprint catalogues; but the search for items not in our own collection will keep us very busy for years.

    Since the thirteen volumes of Evans will serve as the index to the microprint edition, the reproduction of items omitted by Evans will be left to the end of the project. As a matter of fact, most of the omissions are reprints of well-known titles which will be reproduced from other editions in our first series. For the time being, newspapers and other serials will be passed over. Many libraries already have these in microfilm and would hesitate to subscribe to the general project if they were included. Moreover the serials would not fit into our proposal to reprint in the Evans order, which divides them into annual segments.

    This is the most important bibliographical project since the National Union Catalogue was begun. In no other way could so much be done to diffuse knowledge by making widely available tools of research. The most essential printed sources of American history through the year 1800 will for the first time, at the cost of about twenty cents apiece, be brought within the reach of the thousands of students who cannot travel to the great research libraries, or live for months or years in the cities in which these are located. No more need a research scholar in our field regard as exile a position in a distant college. In academic circles interest, research, and instruction in colonial history has been declining. This project will do much to revive it.

    The objection has been raised that with this source material widely available in microprint, the importance of such libraries as this will be diminished. Well, I do not expect that any of us will live to see the completion of the train of related microprinting projects which this will begin. But when this work with all of its ramifications is done, we shall have exhausted the contents of one third of one of the twenty miles of bookshelves in our Library. The other shelves suggest bibliographical projects enough to keep our successor busy for a century.

    The greater part of the film from which the microprints will be prepared will be made in this building by an operator furnished by the Readex Corporation.

    In his letter of 17 September 1954 to Robert Miller, Executive Secretary of the Association of Research Libraries, Boni did use some of this material for a sales talk. He said of the Society and the Corporation that “we believe [this project] to be ‘the most important bibliographical project since the Dictionary of American Biography and the National Union Catalogue.’” For its part in the project, the Society was to receive fifty thousand dollars. Boni had expressed his belief that “we should readily obtain 50 subscribers for this project, and we count on a minimum of thirty. To cover the costs [editorial and printing] we shall ask each subscriber $750 per year for ten years, or a total of $7,500,” and he asked for the support of the Association for this project over the doubly expensive and more narrowly focused unedited project proposed by the Louisville Public Library. Miller had been asked by Metcalf to ask Louisville to retire from the field. In a letter of early October, Shipton mentioned that “there is a feeling among people with bibliographical experience that the job cannot be done within ten years because of the amount of correspondence and searching involved.” He suggested a longer period at a lessened annual cost per subscription and also that Boni send along for the annual meeting a reader so that he might demonstrate Microprint to those members who needed instruction. He mentioned that “there is a certain amount of barking opposition which it would be desirable to stifle, but anyone who knows anything about the problem is in hearty agreement that we should go forward.” Under Shipton’s leadership the major research libraries began to fall into line as cooperating institutions. Geographically arranged, these institutions were to include such libraries as Dartmouth, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston Public Library, Boston Athenæum, John Carter Brown, Connecticut Historical Society, Yale, and the great New York, Philadelphia, and Washington libraries through such giants of the Midwest as Clements and Newberry to the Huntington Library.

    On the seventh of December Shipton wrote to Boni that he had “spent the greater part of the last two weeks working on the preparation of Evans cards, and I find that we can make a great contribution to knowledge with this project of ours. The situation is ripe.” In a press release drafted jointly by Boni and Shipton they spoke of the project completing “a task begun by Isaiah Thomas, the founder of the American Antiquarian Society, a century and a half ago.” They also called attention to the publication of volume thirteen of Evans that year listing imprints through 1800, the work having been completed by Shipton and published by the Society. By the end of that most busy year of 1954, the originators of the project were able to announce with pride that the Committee on Documentary Reproduction of the American Historical Association had endorsed and agreed to accept the sponsorship of the project. Shipton wrote to Boni that “I felt that I had to decline to stand as a candidate for the chairmanship of the AHA Committee because, thanks to this project of ours, I shall have time for nothing of the sort for the next ten years.” At the time of this announcement Shipton was still the very active librarian of the Society, the archivist for Harvard, author of Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, member of committees and councils daunting in their number, and an active citizen in his town of Shirley Center.

    By the sixth of April 1955, Shipton continued to be anxious about letting the workers in the field, historians as much as librarians, know about the project and mentioned that he had been promised notices in American Historical Review and the American Archivist. He mentioned that he was “coming down to New York on Saturday, the 23rd, ostensibly to participate in the foundation of a new society for colonial history, but actually to work on prospects. Will you be in your office Saturday morning? There are many technical details regarding the editing which we ought to talk over.” As it was they had that talk at Boni’s apartment. By that time the project had twelve written orders, twenty-three oral and written assurances, thirty-two possible subscribers, and a number of prospects. It also had reinforcement in the Report of the Council of the Society at the meeting in April where it was described:

    Another bibliographical project, which is the most extensive and useful of any which the Society has ever attempted, is already well under way. This is a reprint on microprint cards of the full text of every imprint included in Evans’s American Bibliography from 1639 through the year 1800. It will exclude newspapers and serial publications, which have been elsewhere covered. In addition to the printing of each text, there will be a complete revision of every title, indicating the ghosts as such and incorporating all the corrections and new discoveries of the past fifty years. The project was described in detail in the Librarian’s Report for October, 1954. It is expected that the project will take ten years to accomplish. Already a sufficient number of subscriptions to the entire series have been received, more than enough to guarantee the successful completion of the work. Mr. Shipton has begun the compilation of this great undertaking, and will give much of his time to it for the years to come. The incidental re-examination of our own collection is proving well worthwhile.

    In May, G. William Berquist of the Corporation wrote to Shipton to say in agreement that “apparently the college professors have given the project an impetus it might not have gotten in some areas if it had been left entirely to the initiative of the librarians.” By early June the Corporation was able to write to subscribers that “since we have been assured of a sufficient number of subscriptions we have been able to reduce the annual payment to $700, and the total to $7,000.” At the same time Shipton was concerned about the cooperating libraries and wrote to the Corporation that “we are going to be such an infernal nuisance to the other libraries that I think we had better use a more diplomatic approach” in asking for their help, and he suggested such a change. He was also concerned about such practical matters as another microfilm reader, an efficient method of bill-paying for Readex expenses, and the expected date of arrival of a microfilm camera operator to set up shop in Worcester. By the end of July, Shipton was able to report to the Corporation that the target cards for some five hundred early Evans items and form letters were about to go out in the mail to its cooperating libraries, and that the project was well along.

    By the end of the prepublication period, the last day of July in 1955, the project was safely subscribed, a large number had come in at the seven-thousand-dollar price and those to follow had to pay an additional thousand dollars. In early August, Shipton was able to give a preliminary report which spelled out one of the problems of the Evans project, then and later, when he wrote that “half of the target cards which have been reported on have been returned, ‘not in this library.’ Half of those pretty evidently describe items which do not exist. The other cards have to be retyped and sent out to other institutions. We’re ready for the reader, the operator, and the camera.”

    During the autumn these items arrived and the project began to gather further tentative motion but delivery of the Microprint cards to the subscribers was still delayed to the point where Shipton mentioned in October that “I am beginning to get inquiries as to what became of the July delivery mentioned in one of Albert’s circulars,” and within a week Shipton noted that “it’s plain that the project is going to be slow in gathering momentum.”

    By the end of November, the Corporation drew up a list of subscribers, and it made a most impressive company of eighty-nine members from all across this country, from Australia, Canada, and England. At that time Shipton sent out copies of a form letter to subscribers as a progress report and as a statement concerning the reasons for delay in the delivery of Microprint cards promised the summer before. The major reason was “the inability to obtain promptly films of items in other institutions. After four months consideration one European library reported that it would take another four months to film the unique pieces in the collection.”

    By the end of the year the number of microfilm reels sent to the printing facility at Chester, Vermont, for processing into Microprint was very impressive and so was the number of technical problems involved, especially with film from other libraries, Shipton being reduced to point out that “with every order I send out the printed instruction sheets, but I have still had to visit some of the microfilmers in an effort to get them to follow our instructions.” Shipton ended the year’s correspondence with the Chester, Vermont, part of the Readex operation by writing to note that he had a backlog of fifteen hundred edited titles ready for the camera operator here, much of whose time was occupied in correcting “retakes because of perfectly needless errors.” He also had sent out to other institutions orders for another fifteen hundred items to be filmed.

    In January 1956 he was able to write to those same subscribers that they had received in early January their five boxes of cards which had been sent, for better or for worse, over-inking or not, and the program was under way.

    In this defense of the project Shipton pointed out the practical need for just such a program as this “first micro-reproductive process to utilize the printing press [which] has been the first, therefore, to make possible the necessary economies of edition publication,” and that his editing has already been completed for the years from 1640 to 1732. “This complete revision of Evans, proceeding simultaneously with the microprinting, is almost as important as the republication of the material itself,” for “it will do more to further research in early American History than any other project hitherto undertaken.”

    In February, Shipton expressed his private concerns in a plaintive note to the firm that he was glad to hear that sales were going well, the last sale being to Uppsala University in Sweden, but he was chiefly concerned then that more attention be paid to the manufacturing end “and stop hurting your reputation by letting illegible cards go out of the factory. Can’t you institute some sort of production control in Chester?” The next day he had the answer that there would be quality control instituted. In the following months Shipton repeated his concerns, “nobody paying attention to the quality of the product.” In the next few months even these technical matters became resolved and the production of the cards was of a quality to match his editing.

    For the next decade Shipton continued his efforts on the original forty thousand Evans items and added to that number about ten thousand “Not-in-Evans” items drawn from the research efforts of library staffs and from the efforts of Roger P. Bristol of the University of Virginia, who compiled these additions and changes toward publication of an additional volume in the Evans series. Bristol’s supplement was published by the Bibliographical Society of America and the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia in 1970.

    Shipton’s own work had been published in 1969, a two-volume set which grew out of his editorial efforts to bring order to the chaos of early American printing. This is one important reason why students and scholars have come to see the National Index as “the capstone to a monument in American scholarship: the reprinting of the sources of American history.” We are all in Shipton’s debt and we shall remain so for a long time.