New-York Historical Society

“Speak to the past and it shall teach thee”: Wilberforce Eames, the Self-Taught Bibliographer

Sotheby's Auction Cataloge for the November 26, 2013 sale of the Bay Psalm Book.

Sotheby’s Auction Catalogue for the November 26, 2013 sale of the Bay Psalm Book.

Written by Maureen Maryanski, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.

Last week a copy of The Whole Booke of Psalmes, the first book printed in English in North America, set a record as the most expensive book ever sold at auction – for $14.2 million. Published in 1640 by Stephen Daye in Cambridge, Massachusetts, only 11 of nearly 1700 printed copies of this first edition survive. Commonly known as the Bay Psalm Book, this book was the product of the New England Puritans’ desire to retranslate the psalms from the original Hebrew text. Yet, as the Sotheby’s catalog states, “it is as a book and not as a text, that the Bay Psalm Book is best known, celebrated, and revered.” The history of its printing has long fascinated book collectors, antiquarian booksellers, and bibliographers, including former New York Public Library bibliographer and librarian Wilberforce Eames (1855-1937).

A List of Editions of the "Bay Psalm Book" compiled by Wilberforce Eames, 1885.

A List of Editions of the “Bay Psalm Book” compiled by Wilberforce Eames, 1885.

Those seeking further information about the Bay Psalm Book, its subsequent editions and various copies, would be well advised to consult Eames’ 1885 bibliography A List of Editions of the “Bay Psalm Book” or New England Version of the Psalms. While some information is outdated – only 9 extant (surviving) copies were known of the 1640 edition at the time – the amount of detail given by Eames in his physical descriptions of the books provide insight into their printing, as well as the provenance, or ownership history, of the identified copies. Indeed his descriptions and accounts are still used as sources for current discussion of these copies, as illustrated by Sotheby’s recent census of the Bay Psalm Book copies: http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/2013/the-bay-psalm-book-sale-n09039/The-Bay-Psalm-Book/2013/10/census-of-copies-of-.html. The New-York Historical Society holds two of the twenty five original printed copies of Eames’ List of Editions, one of which was a presentation copy from the author.

Eames' inscription to the New-York Historical Society, 1885.

Eames’ inscription to the New-York Historical Society, 1885.

Eames also contributed the introduction to the 1903 facsimile reprint of the 1640 Bay Psalm Book, which was created from two copies: those currently under the stewardship of the NYPL and the Huntington Library. Expanding upon his census of 1885, this introduction provides updated provenance information and more extensive discussion of the Bay Psalm Book’s history. The New-York Historical Society holds what Eames’ colleague Victor Hugo Paltsits described as an “unusual memento of the great bibliographer”: the galley and proof pages of Eames’ introduction, with corrections in his own hand. These annotations allow us to chart the evolution of his bibliographical descriptions, through his charming marginalia.

An excerpt of the galley proof pages to Eames' introduction to the 1903 facsimile reprint of The Bay Psalm Book.

An excerpt of the galley proofs to Eames’ introduction to the 1903 facsimile reprint of The Bay Psalm Book.

Wilberforce Eames (1855-1937) in 1904. Wilberforce Eames Papers, Manuscript Department, N-YHS.

Wilberforce Eames (1855-1937) in 1904. Wilberforce Eames Papers, Manuscript Department, N-YHS.

An expert on Americana, Eames was a self-taught scholar, having never finished high school or attended college. Yet over his career at the Lenox Library and then NYPL he compiled and contributed to a multitude of bibliographies, including Joseph Sabin’s A Dictionary of Books relating to America from its Discovery to the Present Time, still a standard reference source for American imprints. Well respected during his lifetime, Eames earned a reputation for his devotion to scholarship, inspiration to others, and dedication to the study of books as material objects. Presented with three honorary degrees from Harvard, University of Michigan, and Brown, he was described by the latter as “enrich[ing] our generation and show[ing] us the meaning of the ancient scripture, ‘Speak to the past and it shall teach thee.’”

In addition to these academic honors, Eames’ dedication to bibliography was also recognized by a published series of bibliographical essays by his colleagues in 1924, as well as gold medals from both the Bibliographical Society of England and the New-York Historical Society. Accepting his medal on November 20, 1931 from N-YHS, Eames beautifully described his view of library work in his address (a handwritten copy of which is held in the manuscripts collection):

Eames' handwritten address to the New-York Historical Society, November 20, 1931. Wilberforce Eames Papers, Mss Department, N-YHS Library.

Eames’ handwritten address to the New-York Historical Society, November 20, 1931. MS 188, Wilberforce Eames Papers

We librarians can learn much from people who come to us for information. In trying to help others in this way, we often help ourselves to a better knowledge of the material under our charge. It is really a great privilege to meet the inquirer personally, and a sufficient reward to succeed in finding the information desired.”

I couldn’t agree with you more, Mr. Eames.

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