Learning from a Printing History We Can See

- by Bruce E. McKinney


An early Munsell printing in exceptional condition.

By Bruce McKinney

This is the second of five articles on the printing history of Joel Munsell.

Joel Munsell of Albany, New York, was an active printer from the late 1820's until his death in 1880. In 1872 he published, under the title Munselliana, a reasonably complete record of the books and pamphlets that issued from his presses between 1828 and 1870. In total he detailed the production of 2,268 items and recorded the print runs for about 1,000. Because he did this it's possible 150 years later, via the internet, to establish survival rates based on searches in the OCLC and online listing sites. It's an imperfect process for several reasons. Joel Munsell was reasonably but not absolutely accurate in his descriptions. Hence material that in its correct form is easily located is equally difficult to locate when his information is in error. The OCLC [Online Computer Library Center] provides a window on the holdings of thousands of libraries but it is not a complete record of all material held by libraries, only the material that libraries have posted. It is nevertheless a marvel of information and indispensable to the serious researcher. For the purposes of this study think of the OCLC as "highly indicative."

In this project I am creating an accounting by decade of Munsell's production and comparing the number of copies in the OCLC and online [mainly on ABE] to printed quantities included in Munselliana. At this point I have completed two decades: 1834-1840 and 1841-1850. It has been my expectation and is now increasingly my belief that much can be known from this study about the disposition and ultimate disappearance of 19th century printing generally. This is a study about probabilities that apply specifically to Munsell's production and generally to a wider range of 19th century printed materials. The magnitude of logic employed is summed up in the saw "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree." We can know a great deal but we will never know it all. This has the vagueness of economics rather than the clarity of mathematics.

Munsell for the 1830's lists 104 items printed. Fifty-six of them include the quantity printed and these are the only ones included in this project. For the 1840's he lists 405 items, 228 with sufficient information to be included. In creating a spreadsheet it is organized in alphabetical order by year. I have categorized the material by number of pages, print runs and general subject. These distinctions are somewhat arbitrary but consistent with patterns apparent in both production and survival. Hence I breakdown print runs by page count: 1-16, 17-71, and 72+. I combine the total of copies located in the OCLC and online sources because even together the totals are small. As stated earlier the OCLC numbers somewhat understate the true holdings in libraries and the online count is simply a snapshot of availability on a particular day. This said, the application of the methodology is consistent and the picture that emerges very believable. A larger and longer term project could count appearances on listing sites over a one or two year period.