Adventures in Cataloging: Some Sleuthing Required (Part I)

Our 25 miles of shelves hold many mysteries for the intrepid cataloger to unravel.

Our 25 miles of shelves hold many mysteries for the intrepid cataloger to unravel.

One of the neat things about working as a cataloger at the American Antiquarian Society is solving the puzzles that come across my desk. I work exclusively on books and pamphlets published in the early nineteenth century, and over the course of 200 years title pages are lost, authors are forgotten, and people disappear into the mists of history. Often, I try to reconstruct the who, where, and when of early U.S. imprints based on what is in my hands; I leave the why to scholars’ debates!

1. No author, no title, no imprint – no problem

Sometimes I work on a pamphlet without an author, without a title page, and without a known date of publication. Such was the case of Address. Gentlemen of the Union Harmonic Society, a pamphlet of 13 pages with its title taken from a caption on the first page of text and a conjectured publication date of 1816.

We try not to leave our records with that many question marks (although sometimes it can’t be helped), so to research it I visited America’s Historical Newspapers and searched for booksellers’ advertisements, Union Harmonic Society events, and mentions of William Collins’ “Ode to Music,” which was reproduced in the pamphlet. It was the last that proved key to discovering the identity of the mysterious pamphlet.

Catalogers in 1892 describing items and solving mysteries; today I use the internet alongside reference books, but the spirit of our goals remains the same -- to accurately identify and describe AAS's holdings.

Catalogers in 1892 describing items and solving mysteries; today I use the internet alongside reference books, but the spirit of our goals remains the same — to accurately identify and describe AAS’s holdings.

An advertisement in the Jan. 1, 1821 issue of the Charleston City Gazette announced an anniversary concert of the Union Harmonic Society. “In the course of an evening,” it proclaimed, “an address will be delivered by Dr. Henry T. Farmer, a member of the Society—in which will be introduced Collins’ Ode on the Passions, with appropriate and descriptive music.”

This was a promising lead, albeit one more suggestive than conclusive. However, I discovered that Henry Farmer’s 1821 address to the Union Harmonic Society had been printed and I reached out to the Charleston Library Society, which holds the pamphlet. They confirmed that the pamphlet on which I was working, known as Address. Gentlemen of the Union Harmonic Society, was, in fact, Farmer’s discourse at the 1821 anniversary concert.

Victorious, I edited the pamphlet’s record, filling in blank elements and conjecture with information from the title page and unifying the pamphlet’s fractured presence in two different early American bibliographies under one (correct!) title: Henry Farmer’s An address, pronounced before the Union Harmonic Society of Charleston, S.C. on the 30th day of January 1821 (Charleston, 1821).

“Adventures in Cataloging: Some Sleuthing Required” will continue next week with part II, when Amy will track down the name of an unidentified woman who is the subject of a pamphlet. Stay tuned!

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