Mapping Colonial America's Printing Project

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Jean Ann Bauer

    Brown University

  2. 2. James Egan

    Brown University

Work text
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In 1524, less than thirty years after arriving on American soil, Europeans opened the New World’s first print shop. By the time creole nationalist movements up and down the two continents were in full swing three hundred years later, the Americas had a thriving print trade with presses spread across two continents.1The Mapping Colonial Americas Publishing Project ( aims to visualize New World printing over geographic space and across literary genres from European contact to 1800. Our poster will illustrate the progress we have made thus far in our efforts to visualize what kinds of works were published where in the Americas before 1800 and how these printing patterns changed over time.

Scholars who study the print trade in the Americas before 1800 have long known that the types of material printed in Europe’s American colonies varied according to region and historical period.2 Scholars have yet to visualize data culled from library catalogs to illustrate the dramatic differences in the kinds of genres published in different parts of the Americas and the way those generic patterns changed over time. Mapping Colonial Americas Publishing aims to put these print histories on display.

By representing the generic differences in the history of print in both North and South America, Mapping Colonial Americas Publishing allows scholars, students, and others to compare generic patterns across languages, cultures, and nations. Scholarship on print in pre-1800 North and South America has, until recently, focused either on English or Spanish materials. Our project fits with recent trends toward Hemispheric study of the colonial Americas, and our poster will highlight this hemispheric approach to colonial print histories.3

Early visualizations based on data from the Brown University Library, especially the Universities rare book libraries, the John Carter Brown and the John Hay, as well as the American Antiquarian Society have revealed the complexity of library catalogs as a digital-print hybrid genre. Literary scholars constantly use library catalogs to locate materials, but rarely think about the conceptual structures or technical possibilities (and limitations) inherent in the data collected by librarians and archivists over the centuries. Library cataloging systems were designed to group, retrieve, and display records, and provide powerful tools for name authority, but individual records are created by hand and many crucial fields for book history (title, imprint, place of publication) contain long sections of multilingual, free form text, which resist systematic parsing to extract spatial or temporal information.4

Rare book catalogers esteem fidelity to the original title page, including spelling variants and latinized proper nouns (ex. Yale University Press giving its place of publication as “Novo Porto” instead of New Haven). This makes an individual catalog entry a rich source for work on the cultural history of reading and the materiality of the book trade, but presents real challenges for collating these entries to perform geospatial analysis or genre comparison over one hundred years of changing best practices.

Library catalog data has become a topic of renewed interest in Digital Humanities with the rise of large scale data repositories such as the HathiTrust and the Digital Public Library of America, but these projects have focused their efforts on combining millions of records into interoperable and searchable data structures.5 The Mapping Colonial America’s Publishing Project is dealing with a much smaller dataset (~140,000 catalog records), produced at Brown University, which allows us to delve into the intricacies of the cataloging and to remodel the data to suit our own research interests and the needs of the Brown University community.

The project will have two major end products: a gazetteer of normalized and geolocated places of publication in the Americas before 1800 and a series of data visualizations designed to help scholars and students explore printed material on the axes of genre, place of publication, date of publication, and format. Following on our initial dives we are refocusing our efforts to build a visual portal into the printed materials from the colonial americas physically held by Brown University. A smaller data set will allow us to do the more intensive data cleaning required for Thiessen Polygon analysis (locations) or data mining (titles, subject headings). Using local data will also allow us to work with our catalogers and verify our analysis against the physical objects as necessary. This project is using open source tools, including OpenRefine ( for data cleaning and the D3.js data visualization library ( All the code and cleaned library data produced by this project is available on github under the MIT license for anyone to download and explore.

1. For a history of the book trade in colonial British America, see Hugh Armory and David D. Hall, eds., A History of the Book in America. Volume One. The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000); Hellmut Lehman-Haupt, A History of the Selling and Making of Books in the United States (New York : R.R. Bowker Co., 1951), 2nd. ed., rev. and enl. ed. and Lawrence C. Wroth, The Colonial Printer (NY: Dover, 1965). For a history of the book trade in colonial Spanish America, see Julie Greer Johnson, The Book in the Americas: The Role of Books and Printing in the Development of Culture and Society in Colonial Latin America (Providence, RI: John Carter Brown Library, 1988) and Hensely C. Woodbridge and Lawrence S. Thompson, Printing in Colonial Spanish America (Troy, NY: Whitson, 1976).

2. Scholarship that focuses on the regional dimension of colonial print cultures include Armory and Hall, Trish Loughran, The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U.S. Nation Building, 1770-1870 (NY: Columbia, 2007). Michael Warner, The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1990), and Wroth.

3. For examples of recent studies that argue for a hemispheric approach to literary and historical approaches to the study of colonial European cultures in the New World, see Ralph Bauer, The Cultural Geography of Colonial American Literatures: Empire, Travel, Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003) and Anna Brickhouse, Transamerican Literary Relations and the Nineteenth-Century Public Sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004).

4. Two excellent recent explorations of cleaning catalog data are Mia Ridge, "Mia Ridge explores the shape of Cooper-Hewitt collections," Cooper-Hewitt Labs, June 19, 2012. and Lincoln Mullen, "Quantifying the American Tract Society: Using Library Catalog Data for Historical Research," Religion in American History, August 1, 2013.

5. For example, A Preservation Infrastructure Built to Last: Preservation, Community, and HathiTrust. UNESCO The Memory of the World in the Digital Age: Digitization and Preservation, Vancouver, British Columbia, September 26-28, 2012. (September 2012) - Jeremy York. On the visualization side, the DPLA is experimenting with a number of large scale data visualizations, of which an ever growing list can be found at

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2014
"Digital Cultural Empowerment"

Hosted at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Université de Lausanne

Lausanne, Switzerland

July 7, 2014 - July 12, 2014

377 works by 898 authors indexed

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Attendance: 750 delegates according to Nyhan 2016

Series: ADHO (9)

Organizers: ADHO