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Sabin Americana

Last Updated: Dec 11, 2023 11:19 AM

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In 1868, Joseph Sabin produced a prospectus for his famous bibliography of monograph works about the "Americas" that he and his successor authors struggled to produce. This was no small undertaking. Sabin himself wrote "Had the magnitude and extreme difficulty of the undertaking been presented to my mind in full proportion at the outset, I should never have attempted it; and, indeed, I may remark, that I have more than once almost determined upon its abandonment; but a deep sense of its importance, however, imperfectly it may be executed, and a strong partiality for bibliographical pursuits, have stimulated me to continue my labor."

The authors of the "The Final Statement" to his bibliography noted years later that when "Sabin"—which served as the shorthand reference to the bibliographical project—began "there were no departments of American history in American colleges and universities, and the recognition of American history in the academic world had to wait nearly two decades for the founding of the American Historical Association. But thousands of young teachers and students of American history and literature and culture who later were to thrill their classes by their method or their spirit have come to profit by the labors of Joseph Sabin." And the benefits of working with Sabin's bibliography remains with us even today.

Joseph Sabin's Bibliotheca Americana was produced over the course of nearly 60 years. As the introduction to the final volume notes: "'Sabin' is not the work of two or three individuals but is a greater cooperative enterprise which never could have reached its present usefulness without the aid of hundreds of persons whose names and services were known only to the editorial staff. Librarians, cataloguers, scholars and collectors have searched their shelves and their historical notes in order to make these records more complete." Contributors included individuals working at the American Antiquarian Society, the Boston Athenaeum, the Boston Public Library, the Connecticut Historical Society, Grosvenor Library, the Harvard College Libraries, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the John Carter Brown Library, the Library of Congress, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Minnesota Historical Society, the New York Historical Society, the New York Public Library, the New York State Library, the Peabody Institute, the University of Texas, William and Mary College, the William L. Clements Library (now part of the University of Michigan), the Wisconsin Historical Society, Yale University Library, as well as the many auction houses, booksellers, and private collectors whom Sabin and his successors contacted.

In the compilation process, the Sabin editorial staff worked from auction catalogs, bookseller lists and the holdings of libraries across the country and in Europe. The goal was to create robust title lists that confirmed through personal inspection (or inquiry of the source library for such an inspection) of an original copy of the work. Alternate editions and related works were either compiled into the same bibliographical reference or were made part of the annotations that have proven invaluable for bibliographic scholarship.

In compiling the bibliography, Sabin and his successors faced innumerable challenges particular to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We must recall that it was only during this period that the study of American history and literature were achieving formal contours. As a consequence, a determinate canon of works that could serve these fields of study was far from established and could only be brought into existence through a labor of enormous intelligence and diligence. The technological challenges were equally great. The Sabin team had to conduct much of its research through personal inspection, frequent travel, and vast reams of correspondence. Sabin's bibliography was initiated long before there were the copying machines and microfilming equipment that made possible the widely distributed "Dictionary Catalogs" published by G.K. Hall (which were in essence reproductions of the catalog cards from the nearly hundred libraries with which G.K. Hall had worked). And, of course, Sabin long precedes the rise of electronic modes of access that precipitated the development of machine readable cataloging (MARC) records, which enabled institutions to generate for their patrons the online public access catalogs (OPACs) or multicatalog utililities such as RLIN or OCLC that have become the coin of the realm for research today. No, those who built Sabin had to conduct their work in a fundamental sense "by hand." This naturally resulted in gaps in the noble attempt to create a bibliography that encompassed books "about the Americas." At the same time, it required the application of an intelligence in selection and obsessive interest in "squirreling out" works that had long remained in a sense unknown to scholars. The wonder of Sabin is not in its definitiveness—Sabin and his bibliographic heirs recognized that a definitive bibliography of works about the Americas was not possible in their lifetime—but in its reach.

Sabin reaches into all aspects of American history and culture. It touches upon the political and religious life in North America and at times South America and the Caribbean. It features American and European views of the colonization of the Americas, the American Revolution, the days of the early Republic and Jacksonian period, the antebellum period, Civil War, era of Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction, the settlement of the West and the onset of the Gilded Age. Through published pamphlets, tracts, memoirs, congressional legislation, correspondence, broadsides, biographies, histories, fiction and poetry, eulogies, sermons and innumerable other genres, Sabin opens a window onto the Americas through which few get to glimpse.


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Michael Kicey
424 Lockwood