More Old Books Uncovered at Northwestern

The following post recounts some of the most recent work undertaken as part of the Renaissance Books, Midwestern Libraries project, an undergraduate-driven effort to report copies of early printed books in the American Midwest to the English Short Title Catalogue. (Of course, these efforts stretch well beyond the Midwest; read about a similar effort at Virginia Commonwealth University here.)

RBML began two years ago during the summer of 2014 and culminated in an exhibit showcasing dozens of items uncovered during the project (find a digest of the first phase here). Working from a checklist of local holdings compiled by Gary Strawn, Northwestern undergraduates Hannah Bredar, Erin Nelson, and Nicole Sheriko successfully “matched” over 1,200 pre-1701 items into the ESTC. This raised Northwestern’s representation in the catalog from an initial 188 items to almost 1,500. What remained after this portion of the project were books issued between 1683 and 1700, as well as our so-called “hard cases” — identifications requiring recourse to the physical item.

With funding generously granted from Northwestern University Libraries, RBML continues in its second phase this summer at Deering Library. In consultation with Special Collections head Scott Krafft and Professor Emeritus of English Martin Mueller, I’ve hired two undergraduates to participate in this project’s second phase: Katie Poland and Jake Phillips. Both are sharp-witted, dedicated, and undaunted by bibliographical terminology.

This month, and in less than two weeks, Katie and Jake have successfully stretched Northwestern’s ESTC representation to almost 2,500. Working through the year 1700 in the original checklist, they have also handled hundreds of hard cases, leafing through Northwestern’s early printed books to confirm an imprint or a tell-tale variant in order to match an item with an ESTC record. This project also provides opportunities to correct Northwestern’s local catalog as well.

Through their work, Katie and Jake have turned up dozens of difficult items resisting easy identification, from the famous to the obscure to the bizarre. In consultation with Professor Jeffrey Masten, they examined Northwestern’s copy of Shakespeare’s Second Folio (1632), which could be any of nine possible states of the book on account of its missing preliminary leaves (this item will receive more scrutiny during a dedicated project). They’ve also come up with nineteenth-century reproductions of mid-seventeenth century publications mistakenly cataloged as the real deal, and have puzzled through single-leaf items, title-pages in pen facsimile, and bound volumes containing a range of separately-issued publications.

While it’s quite unlikely for RBML to uncover a new edition for the ESTC altogether, Katie and Jake have identified what certainly seem to be previously-unreported issues of well-known books. One of these is an English translation of Réné Descartes’s A Discourse of a Method, printed in octavo in 1649 by the stationer Thomas Newcombe. Northwestern’s copy of this book represents a small, but unrecorded link in the early English reception history of Descartes.


According to the ESTC, there are three known states of Newcombe’s edition of the Discourse, which was the first English translation of any of Descartes’s writings to appear in print. The first featured a bordered title-page, specifying in the imprint that it was made by Newcombe “for John Holden at the Anchour in the new Exchange.” A second issue retains this imprint, but lacks the decorative border. Yet another issue, also from 1649, lacks the border and does not include Holden’s name, reading simply “Printed by Thomas Newcombe. MDCXLIX.” and signed A4. Northwestern’s copy occupies a place among these latter two, during a period in which it seems Newcombe himself took over the sale of the book. It features the same setting of type throughout, but the imprint reads “Printed by Thomas Newcombe, and are to be sold at his house over against Baynards Castle. 1649.” (It is also signed A4). The lack of a record in the ESTC does not mean this issue is completely unknown, or that Northwestern possesses the only known copy of it. However, the creation of a corresponding record for this issue in the ESTC may help librarians and scholars track down and account for this book (and others like it) in a more complete and systematic manner.

This is only a small picture of the good work that Katie and Jake are doing this summer for Northwestern Special Collections in particular and for early modern researchers at large.

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