“Black Printers” on White Cards: Information Architecture in the Data Structures of the Early American Book Trades
Molly O’Hagan Hardy
Since Isaiah Thomas incorporated his research for his ambitious The History of Printing in America1 (1810) into the collections of the American Antiquarian Society (AAS), which he founded in 1812, the Society has held the most data on the early American book trades in North America and the Caribbean. The bulk of this information exists on twenty-five drawers of cards in our reading room and is known as the Printers’ File.2 Culled from biographies, reference books, and newspapers, the data detail the work of some 6,000 printers, publishers, editors, binders, and others involved in the book trades up to 1820.
We are now transforming all of this data, both from the cards and from our General Catalog,3 into a digital resource. In an effort to augment the types of queries our data can answer, to link our data to related datasets, and to allow greater access to a resource that is currently only available in our reading room, we are reorganizing, reordering, and in effect “digitizing” this data. In the transformation, the information architecture governing the data will change, and this change illustrates how data structure can both make and obscure meaning. The loss in this case is not data about the printers themselves, but instead it is information about the zeitgeist in which the data were assembled. As Alan Liu reminds us, digital humanists need to show that critical thinking about our resources “scales into thinking critically about the power, finance, and other governance protocols of the world” (“Where Is Cultural Criticism”). Insofar as such protocols are inscribed on and in the very structures of data—be they index cards, library catalogs, or databases—attention to them is especially crucial at times of change and at moments of reordering and reorienting our data. The opportunity to make the important critical move that Liu argues for therefore requires attention to the critical making of libraries and archivists in the decades that came before the digital turn.
Book historians (and the more steeped in bibliography and cataloging one is, the more I think this is true) have long been keenly aware of the importance of how information is structured. In her contribution to the 2012 edition of Debates in the Digital Humanities,4 Joanna Drucker identifies such an awareness with the critical editing and online repositories built in the early 1990s, but we might trace such an awareness much further back if we are to look at the history of cataloging and bibliography in this country, and of course even further back, if we turn our gaze across the Atlantic. But the point that I want to make here is less about origins than it is about Drucker’s concern that what she terms “capta” and defines as “interpretation rather than data” is lost in the creation of humanist “data.” And she is right: if we fail to reflect on a given system’s “capta,” systems of interpretation and an analysis of the work they do might well be lost. Attention to the processes and procedures of the past generations’ data creators—librarians and archivists—allow us to see how information structures governing data are a form of “capta” themselves. As Lisa Gitelman and Virginia Jackson argue in the introduction to “Raw Data” Is an Oxymoron5 (16): “starting with data often leads to an unnoticed assumption that data are transparent, that information is self-evident, the fundamental stuff of truth itself. If we’re not careful, in other words, our zeal for more and more data can become a faith in their neutrality and autonomy, their objectivity.” Drucker warns us that something is lost—and I will provide an example of that—and then Gitelman and Jackson remind us that there is no stripping down of data to some neutral place, that ordering is interpretation. The transformation of the Printers’ File verifies that observation as well.
Composed almost singularly by Avis Clarke, librarian at AAS from 1927 until 1970 when she retired, the Printers’ File is an example of a largely bygone era of massive bibliographic data collection by individuals. In the early twentieth century, increasingly institutionalized special collection libraries had come to rely on the female clerical worker. Barbara Mitchell concludes her essay on this transformation of the male librarian’s authority to the female cleric’s bureaucratic function in the period:
Seen within its technological, cultural and social context, the rise of the card catalogue, and the concomitant entrance of female clerical workers into increasingly bureaucratized libraries, was a pivotal point not only in the history of libraries. The great library catalogues, early technology systems that would endure for decades, were catalysts for an extraordinary moment of institutional growth and change. (Mitchell, 147)
Clarke was an indefatigable and, if rumors are true, somewhat eccentric workhorse whose output lasted a staggering forty-three years in the middle of the twentieth century. Here she is pictured, typing up one of thousands of cards she created.
These cards, and the name authority work they have contributed to, have been of inestimable value to AAS catalogers and researchers alike as they write and rewrite the history of early American, Caribbean, Scottish, Irish, and English printing and all of the labors associated with it.
The transformation of the Printers’ File into a digital resource has rendered visible some of these hitherto “unnoticed assumptions” that Gitelman and Jackson describe. The Printers’ File is in effect a prosopography, tracing the business and at times personal lives of thousands of people involved in and around the early American book trade and the people who dictate this structure. Each of the salmon-color cards in the twenty-five drawers details the life of an individual.
One person might have more than one card, but always—or almost always—there is a name at the top of the card to remind the user that it is the category of “person” that is organizing this inquiry (Figure 31.1). In this sea of salmon cards, there is however an exception: four white cards that have the title “Black Printers” at their top, instead of a person’s name. The cards then list a number of African American printers active in the trade from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Why are these cards included? How did they come to disrupt the information structure that governs this data? And what do we make of such a disruption?
The answer can be found in our institutional records,6 which trace the building of our collections and in so many ways reflect and inform the history of information science and librarianship in this country. In the AAS archives there is correspondence between California Historical Society7 librarian James Abajian and AAS associate librarian Fred Bauer, Jr. In June 1975, Abajian sent a general query to a number of university libraries and a few independent libraries about his latest project: “I am preparing for publication a monograph concerning U.S. 19th and early 20th century black printers, type founders, and ink and paper makers. If you have any references to blacks engaged in either this field or peripheral areas, I should very much appreciate receiving Xerox copies of them.” Bauer promptly responded with a list of reference books Abajian might consult and told him of the Printers’ File. Bauer lamented that the Printers’ File could not really be of help because of the way it was organized. He wrote, “Unfortunately, we do not have any entry to our Printer’s [sic] Catalog by sex or race (color). This great resource can only be tapped through the Surname of the printer.” In response, Abajian adjusted his query, forwarding “a selected list of such printers is attached for whatever can be done with it” (Correspondence in “AAS Records”).
Bauer was pleased to have the list, responding that he hoped “to turn up some information as we proceed with our cataloging” and asking Abajian for permission to include it in the File. Bauer again bemoaned the Printers’ File’s insufficiency: “Since we are still working in the period 1640–1830,” he wrote, “we have only a slight chance to discover any of the people you have found, but we shall try. Please keep us advised of your results for we would welcome any additional information for our Printers’ file.”8 It is Abajian’s list that became the four 3×5 white index cards.
Placed at the start of the “B”s, these cards, now understood in the context of this exchange, speak to an absence in the history of the American trades: the names of these “black printers” are there because Abajian sought data that Bauer regrettably could not supply. In other words, their inclusion signifies exclusion.
There is much more to be said about these cards as outliers, about the political and social conditions in which these men and women of the book trades worked and the reasons their work is obscure, and about the zeitgeist in which Abajian sought information about them. For my purposes here, I want to say simply that, through rupture, these cards call attention to the forces at play as this huge amount of information was structured. In digitizing the data, we will note the race, insofar as we know it, of all members of the trade so that the uniqueness of these cards will be lost.
The gray scale in which we have scanned the cards allows one to distinguish between a salmon card and a white card, but there will be no place to field the card color: 4 entries out of some 6,000 hardly warrant their own column in a spreadsheet. We will however be including information about what Bauer lamented the lack of in his letter to Abajian: the “sex or race (color)” of these historical figures insofar as we know it. In the digital resource, the “black printers” can be found by simple querying of the data, as if these names had always been there. These names will not stand out because they are on white cards, but instead will exist in the same ontology as all the others in the dataset. The cards themselves, however, remind us that our organization of data, no matter how neutral we imagine it to be, is built out of and therefore reflects on a particular moment—that it is performing a kind of “capta” through its very organization within a system that can never itself be neutral because its creation, like the data it captures, is a humanist endeavor.
8. Jonathan Senchyne of the University of Wisconsin first drew my attention to these letters.
Correspondence in “AAS Records, 1912-,” 1979 1970. Box 394. American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.
Drucker, Johanna. “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/34.
Gitelman, Lisa, and Virginia Jackson.“Raw Data” Is an Oxymoron. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2013.
Liu, Alan. “Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/20.
Mitchell, Barbara. “Boston Library Catalogues, 1850–1875: Female Labor and Technological Change.” In Institutions of Reading: The Social Life of Libraries in the United States, ed. Thomas Augst and Kenneth Carpenter, 119–47. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007.