The Printers’ File: A Study in Typewriters and Linked Data

BY DAN SPECHT, CFO AND VP SALES AND MARKETING

I make it a point to tell people that I am not a librarian.  I do this because I don’t want people to see me as an “impersonator” among the amazing and well-trained community of librarians.  Instead, I am just a guy who many times happens to be in the right place at the right time in the library world. 

This serendipity was truly the case in late January 2017 when I found myself invited to a meeting led by the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) at the Bobst Library at New York University regarding the transformation of the Printers’ File into Linked Data. 

The story of the Printers’ File begins with Avis Clarke, pictured below.  Over her 43 year career at the American Antiquarian Society, she compiled 25 drawers of cards in a card catalog that would become the Printers’ File.  As noted on the AAS website,  “Culled from biographies, reference books, and newspapers, this information details the work of printers, publishers, editors, binders, and others involved in the book trades up to 1820, and book historians and genealogists have consulted these files ever since.” (http://www.americanantiquarian.org/printers-file)

If you think of it, Avis was creating Linked Data with her typewriter, starting 90 years ago.

Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

AAS estimates that the Printers' File documents approximately 10,000 people in book trades. The cards detail their occupations, the firms they worked with, and newspaper associations in addition to basic biographical information. A sample of the cards follows, showing the detail stored by Avis in her labor of love.

Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

Circle forward to today and, thanks to a project led by Molly Hardy, AAS entered the card files into a database over several months.  From that point, working with the team at Zepheira, the database was transformed and reviewed via an iterative process into the Linked Data introduced at the workshop I attended in January. 

That day in New York I split off into a project group with librarians from the Bodleian, Folger, Beinecke, and Morgan Libraries (among others). Together we broke down the various listed professions identified in the Printers’ File Linked Data, focusing on the work of making paper.  I wondered how I could hide the fact that I didn’t have a clue how people made paper in the early 1800s – or today, for that matter!  However, I was sure of one thing.  The passion and commitment with which this group of librarians attacked this project were special.  And, again by fate or fortune, I was an outsider at a special event.

What is unique about this project is the commitment of not only the staff at AAS but the group of actively engaged peers from across the library and research communities that met in New York in January to review the work “completed to date.” I specifically note it as the work completed to date because even with all of the hours invested so far, there are still anomalies to be addressed and fixed over time. 

The amazing work of Avis beginning almost 90 years ago is a striking parallel to the current spirit of the transformation process. When Avis sat in front of her typewriter to create file cards, she didn’t worry about whether her work was perfect or if each record was totally complete.  What she created was an amazing data set that did its best to replicate and preserve the available information.  The partners in the transformation process today are hoping to achieve the same results.  The result of the transformed data is a richer more connected network of information.  Is it perfect in every way?  Probably not – but it is now highly structured with the ability for a wide community of users to help identify and update potential errors. 

I am not a librarian, but I greatly respect the commitment of librarians from Avis Clarke to Molly Hardy and the current AAS staff.   Thanks to this project, with a few mouse clicks I learned that James Flanagan was a Weigher of Hay – along with being a Judge, Bookseller, Lawyer and in the New York print trade from 1807-1840. 

 Which would never have happened without Avis Clarke and her typewriter.