“Black Printers” on White Cards: Information Architecture in the Database of the Early American Book Trades

Since our founder 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. The bulk of this information exists on 25 drawers of cards in our reading room and is known as the Printers’ File. Culled from biographies, reference books, and newspapers, the data detail the work of 8,000-10,000 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, into the Database of the Early American Book Trades (DEABT). This online resource is an effort to augment the types of queries our data can answer, to link our data to related data sets, and to allow greater access to a resource that is currently only available in our reading room. The transformation has offered me a number of opportunities to reflect on how the information architecture governing this set of data makes meaning and is therefore ripe for the kinds of reflection Alan Lui calls for when he writes that 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.”

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Sample cards from the Printers’ File.

Book historians (and the more steeped in bibliography and cataloguing one is, the more I think this is true) are keenly aware of the importance of how information is structured. In her contribution to Debates in the Digital Humanities (2012), 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 one 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.” Since her essay appeared a few years ago, much has been done to show that the information structures governing the data are a form of “capta” themselves. For example, Lisa Gitelman and Virginia Jackson argue in the introduction to ‘Raw Data’ is an Oxymoron (2013): “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” (16).

The transformation of the Printers’ File into the DEABT has rendered some of these hitherto “unnoticed assumptions” visible to me. The 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 cards themselves dictate this structure. Each of the salmon cards in the 25 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. In this sea of salmon cards, there is however an exception: four white cards that, at their top, instead of a person’s name, have the title “Black Printers.” The cards then list a number of African American printers active in the trade in the eighteenth to 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?

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The answer can be found in our institutional records, 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 Society 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 he 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.” Bauer responded that he was pleased to have the list as he hoped “to turn up some information as we proceed with our cataloging,” and asked Abaijan 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, 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.” It is Abajian’s list that became the four 3×5 white index cards. Placed at the start of the “B”s, these cards 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.

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The letter from James Abajian with the list of black printers.

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 limited 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 creating the online database, 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. We will be including that which Bauer laments the lack of in his letter to Abajian, and the “black printers” can be found by a simple querying of the database, 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 database. 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 upon a particular moment, that it is performing a kind of “capta” through its very organization within a system, a system that can never itself be neutral because its creation, like the data it captures, is a humanist endeavor.

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About Molly O'Hagan Hardy

Molly O’Hagan Hardy is AAS Digital Humanities Curator and an ACLS Public Fellow. Every month on Past is Present she will be sharing news on digitization efforts at AAS, coverage of digital humanities projects using AAS materials, and ideas for such projects. Stay current with all things DH at AAS by checking out the “Digital AAS” section of our website.

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