- Bibliographic Enterprise and the Digital Age:Charles Evans and the Making of Early American Literature
At the end of the nineteenth century, Charles Evans set out to compile the first comprehensive bibliography of printed texts up to 1820 in what would become the US. A librarian who grew up around American books, Evans had a love for such artifacts of early national history that carried him through this arduous task, as did his drive to enumerate these imprints into a single set of volumes. In a speech delivered in October 1921 at the American Antiquarian Society's (AAS) annual meeting, Evans described in vivid detail his affective relationship to his work, and in so doing, situated himself in the mores that brought this group of men together. Specifically, he identified himself with antiquarianism, a lineage of practice imported from England but made local by the nation's first collectors of literature printed in the US. His bibliographic work drew on a tradition dating back to the nation's founding while also setting the course for the ways in which this corpus would make itself available to the next century of students and scholars of the period.
In the decades following Evans's work, AAS would lay his endeavor as the cornerstone for the photographic and then digital reproduction of early American literature. An understanding of his motivations and processes, along with the ways in which his bibliography has been remediated, helps the contemporary scholar interrogate the interfaces on which she relies to navigate the historical record: the data underlying the database searches leave traces of bibliographical work that resulted from encountering the archive in a way that has largely vanished as research. In the century since its completion, Evans's passionate and painstaking work has resulted in [End Page 331] the bibliographic data that enabled the widespread distribution of early American texts by the AAS and the Readex Microprint Corporation. This digital interface is how most scholars encounter the archive of early American literature today. I contend that US literary history is now written more in the half-light of the work and desires of such scholars as Evans, whose bibliographic quests are never fully eradicated by digital storage and transmission, and less so in the full illumination of the digital age. In what follows, I examine how Evans undertook and understood his own work, and then I move forward to explain the processes and negotiations that led to its digitization, the very tools that shape our current perception of American literary history.
Evans began his relationship with the AAS as many do: with research queries to the librarian. His letters to then–head librarian Clarence Brigham began shortly after Brigham took the post in 1908. Brigham was working on a similarly comprehensive bibliography for early American newspapers, so they quickly found kindred spirits in each other. In a particularly heartfelt exchange on 4 September 1910, Evans reflects on what Brigham's support meant to him:
Your letters are very encouraging. When a man puts his heart into a work there is something in it more than the mere satisfaction of doing it. As I sometimes find myself wondering if it will only be posterity which will rise up and call me blessed, you will see that a little need of praise now is appreciated by the worker.
Evans needed Brigham's expertise and collections, even as he increasingly relied on Brigham's encouragement. Brigham may have been an Ivy League–educated highflyer in the library world, but Evans was an unlikely candidate to become "one of the great bibliographers that America has produced" (Tanselle 244). He never received formal academic education beyond the Boston Farm School on Thompson Island in Boston Harbor. Studying under prominent Bostonian Samuel Eliot, Evans began work at the Boston Athenæum at age 16, and he spent the rest of his life in libraries without the formal training of the scholars, bibliographers, and librarians who surrounded him (Holley 11–15). His acceptance among the head librarians at the august special collections he frequented was hard won; many were skeptical that he could succeed in his ambitious undertaking. Indeed, Evans...