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The Library as Scholarly Publisher An Informal History of the Bulletin of the New York Public Library

by Sims Kline on December 11, 2017

SIMS KLINE is a retired Research Librarian at Stetson University, DeLand, FL. Contact Sims at simsklinepiano@gmail.com. Sims is currently reading The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving by Lisa Miller.

Never before in the history of libraries has so much information been published every day online about libraries—their resources, services, facilities, and staff. This paradigm shift in how libraries communicate with their users and others has been the subject of much research in the professional literature of librarianship.

Several initiatives to develop, support, and enhance the library-as-publisher have emerged in the last few years. As digital information continues to transform libraries, it is useful to look back at the history of the library’s role as scholarly publisher. Understanding the history and significance of the Bulletin of the New York Public Library, one of the exemplars of this role, is particularly illuminating. As libraries increasingly emphasize content and access to unique local collections, this publication serves as an illustrative encouragement and historical guidepost for the future of scholarly publishing by libraries.

The Bulletin of the New York Public Library (1897–1977) and its successors, the Bulletin of Research in the Humanities (1978–1987) and Biblion: Bulletin of the New York Public Library (1992–2001), represent a major publishing landmark in American scholarship.1 This brief, informal review of the Bulletin includes its publication history, scope, and formats, as well as references to representative articles, underscoring its significant role in establishing libraries as active participants in the communication of scholarship.

The complete text of the Bulletin, Volumes 1–80 (1897–1977), is available at no charge online at the HathiTrust website. Its pages are from the University of Michigan Library’s hard copy back file, scanned by the Google Books project.

Robust Beginnings: Early Issues of the Bulletin

The Bulletin’s first article is an unsigned “Introductory Statement,” most likely written by either John Bigelow, the first President of the Board of Trustees of the New York Public Library, or John S. Billings, the then-retired first Director of the Library.2 The “Introductory Statement” includes a detailed account of how the Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Libraries were consolidated to form the New York Public Library: “The terms of the agreement were as simple as possible. The new corporation was to establish and maintain a free public library and reading room in the City of New York, with such branches as might be deemed advisable.”3 The section on “Organization of the Library” lists five main departments: Executive, Catalogue, Shelf, Readers, and Periodical;4 remarkably, this pattern of organization is still in use by many libraries 120 years later.

Another item in the first issue is an “Address to the Mayor, Aldermen and Commonality of the City of New York” by John Bigelow. In reviewing the goals of the newly formed corporation to establish the New York Public Library, Bigelow included a table showing “the number of books in the principal Libraries of the World.” The list showed estimated holdings of twenty-eight libraries, ranked from highest number of volumes (Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris with 2,700,000) to lowest (New York Public Library with 350,000). Bigelow pointedly observed that “no one can fail to be impressed with the meagre and unsatisfactory provisions existing in the City of New York, either for scholars and students in the reference library, or for home read- ing through a library of circulation.”5

Bigelow’s speech to the NewYork politicians made a challenging comparison: “while millions have been spent upon Parks, Armories and Public Improvements, public contributions to libraries have been insignificant.”6 Bigelow concluded his peroration with this stirring call for public support: “When we consider the extent to which an institution of the character proposed [the New York Public Library] may fairly be expected to strengthen the police, diminish crime, raise public standard of morality, attract to our city men from every department of industry and every walk of life, add to the operative power of our people, and extend the influence of our Commonwealth, it can hardly be regarded otherwise than a privilege for the City to share in the work.”7

The third and final article in the first issue of the Bulletin was the “Report of the Director.” It included these sections: Catalogues, Classification and Shelf Location, Character of the Collections, Gifts, Purchases, Statistics of Volumes and Readers, and List of Principal Donors.8

In the second monthly issue of the Bulletin (February 1897), the precedent was set—and followed throughout the entire, distinguished publication history of this journal—to include primary source material of interest to scholars. This issue featured a formidable roster: “New York Oath Rolls of 1753–57,” in which the First Roll was termed “The Abjuration Oath.” Each of the undersigned “do sincerely promise and swear, that I will be faithful and bear true Allegiance to His Majesty King George the Second. So help me God.”9 The Second Roll was “The Declaration against Transubstantiation,” in which the undersigned declared that “there is not any Transubstantiation of the Elements of Bread and Wine, into the Body and Blood of Christ.”10

An early of example of resource sharing, at least bibliographically, may be found in another section of the second issue: “Periodicals Relating to Language and Philology in the New York Public Library and Columbia University Library.” An example of an entry in this list is “Philologus. Zeitschrift fűr das klassische Alterthum,” with detailed cataloging notes.11 A tradition established early on for the Bulletin was listings of “Principal Book Gifts.” These entries were also detailed: “Ptolemy (Claudius). Tabvlae Geographicae ad mentem auto- ris restitutae & emendate per Gerardum Mercatorem. Coloniae Agrippinae, 1578. Gift of Mr. Maitland and Mr. Avery.”12 The fifth issue of the Bulletin (May 1897) included a bibliography titled “Documents Relative to the Higher Education of Women,”13 as well as a continuing series of descriptive bibliographies of primary source documents on the Continental Congress of 1774, which had been donated to the Library by Trustee John S. Kennedy.14

Commitment to Scholarship

Even a brief sampling of scholarly articles and notes on primary resources and unpublished manuscript documents in the Bulletin underscores the scope and significance of the journal’s continued support for and encouragement of a wide spectrum of academic interests:

  • Letters of Benjamin Franklin on Public A airs, 1773–178715
  • The Heritage of the Modern Printer16
  • The Library’s First Folio Shakespeares17
  • History of Aeronautics18
  • Political Cartoons as Historical Documents19
  • Working Together: Publisher, Bookseller, and Librarian20
  • Stephen Crane: Some New Stories21
  • Reminiscences of Willa Cather as a Teacher22
  • The Influence of Thoreau’s Lecturing upon his Writing23
  • Training of Children’s Librarians: History and Implications24
  • The Importance of Publishing “Earnest”25
  • DeQuincey’s First Article in Black- wood’s Magazine26
  • The Craftsmanship of Lowell: Revisions in The Cathedral27
  • The New England Character in Cooper’s Social Novels28
  • The “Conservatism” of Robert Frost29

An excellent summary of the purpose, scope, and importance of the scholarly materials published in the Bulletin is found in the introduction to a forty-year index to the journal, covering 1897–1936. The Bulletin has also contained selections from our manuscripts printed in full or in such extracts as would best show our resources in unprinted sources
for historical investigation, and the detailed lists of such manuscript collections as our Washington papers, the Andrew Jackson papers, and similar collections. Practically every number has contained a list of our books on some topic of interest, covering such different fields as literary annuals, general geographical atlases, bimetallism, bridges, Cervantes literature, constitutions and political rights, electricity, fish and fisheries, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ireland, marriage and divorce, naval history, prices and wages, the Shakers, woman, etc.30

The last volume of the Bulletin published under that title was Volume 80, 1976–77. The number of scholarly articles in that volume is impressive, and nearly all of them are based on manuscript and archival collections in the Library. Some examples are:

  • John Milton and the Performing Arts31
  • Carlyle and the Jacobin Undercurrent in German Transcendentalism32
  • Virginia Woolf, the Pargeter: A Reading of The Years33
  • The Loudspeaker and the Human Voice: Politics and the Form of The Years34
  • Lord Chester eld, Barnaby Rudge, and the History of Conscience35

A New Publisher, a New Name: The Bulletin of Research in the Humanities

In the last issue of the Bulletin, this announcement was featured:

As we go to press: New Support for This Bulletin—and a New Name! Our next issues will appear early next year under a new publishing arrangement—and with a new title. The Spring 1978 issue of the quarterly Bulletin of Research in the Humanities (formerly Bulletin of the New York Public Library) will have the same broad coverage of scholarship in the humanities, including the graphic and performing arts, with the same illustrated format and prize-winning typography….William F. Boni, President of Readex Books (a Division of Readex Microprint Corporation), whose generous support has made possible the publication of the Bulletin since 1973, has offered to take on the responsibility of sole publisher; an international Advisory Board of scholars in numerous fields has been formed; and staff members of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, have come to the assistance of the editorial staff of the Library in the exacting work of evaluating and editing the various articles submitted for publication.36

Library President Richard Couper stated, “We welcome the arrangement for a continuation of this ne academic journal of eighty years’ history and the expansion of services to the international academic community.”37 In the announcement of the new arrangement and the forthcoming publication of Bulletin of Research in the Humanities, another excellent summary of the history and scope of the Bulletin of the New York Public Library was provided:

“Founded in 1897, the Bulletin consisted for some years of institutional news, edited texts of documents, and bibliographies of extensive Library holdings. By mid-century it had evolved into a learned journal in the humanities. Its contents have often drawn upon the special resources of the Library, such as its noted collections on American history and on black, Jewish, and Slavonic history and culture, the Berg Collection of English and American Literature, and the extensive holdings in illuminated manuscripts, illustrated books, and prints. Since the opening of the performing arts complex of The NewYork Public Library at Lincoln Center, the Bulletin has increased its presentation of illustrated essays on music, theatre, and dance. The new Bulletin of Research in the Humanities (abbreviation BRH), while continuing these emphases, will also draw upon research performed at the special humanities research facilities at Stony Brook Library, such as the recently opened Archives of Irish Literature and a new developing project applying scientific technology to the study of cultural documents. Publishable results of research done anywhere will be welcomed, but especially articles exemplary in method.38

It was also announced that David Erdman, a leading William Blake scholar, would continue as editor of the publication. A new Advisory Board was established, and included scholars from Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale Universities.39

Of particular significance in the announcement about the continuation of the Bulletin was the reference to William Boni’s previous and continuing financial support for the journal. His company, Readex Books, became the sole publisher. The storied form of Boni and Liveright was established by Horace Liveright and William’s father, Albert Boni, in 1917, with the initial publication of the “Modern Library of the World’s Best Classics.” This series later became the forerunner of the Random House “Modern Library.” Albert Boni’s obituary in the New York Times noted that as “one of the historic and flamboyant figures in American publish- ing . . . in the post-World War I period [he] brought out the work of Thornton Wilder, Ford Madox Ford, Theodore Dreiser and Leon Trotsky, and . . . was one of the pioneers in the paperback and book-club field.”40

The Bulletin of Research in the Humanities, despite its quite scholarly scope, reserved a certain restrained but playful flamboyance for itself. A 1982 advertisement for the Bulletin in the Shakespeare Quarterly noted that the journal “appeals to the Generalist, the Literary Specialist, the Art Lover, the Book Lover, the Feminist, [and] the Bibliographer.” Subscribers could expect to “discover the undiscovered [and] anticipate the unanticipated.”41

In the same advertisement, a table of contents for the forthcoming issue was included, with the statement that the journal features “readable scholarly articles in a handsomely illustrated format.”

  • Romanticism: A special issue on Blake, Yeats, and the Starry Heavens
  • Medieval Studies: 9th-Century Harkness Gospels
  • Fine Arts & Black Studies: Art Collection of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
  • American Literature and Textual Studies: The Endings of Walden
  • The Nineties & Beyond: Poet and Priest John Gray and His Circle
  • Modern Literature: Virginia Woolf and the Elizabethans; Jack Kerouac’s Notebooks.42

Biblion Refocuses on the Library

Following a five-year hiatus, the next publication—a worthy successor to Bulletin of Research in the Humanities and Bulletin of the New York Public Library—was Biblion: The Bulletin of the New York Public Library, published semiannually. This journal had an auspicious beginning with its first issue in 1992. Statements by Library President Timothy Healy and Biblion’s editor Anne Skillion provide real insight into the history and goals of the publication. “The Library,” declared Healy, “is keeper of more than one kind of treasure. … By providing a forum for scholars in and out of the Library, Biblion can raise awareness about the services we offer, o er new insights into our collections, and contribute to the historical record.”43

More specifically, Skillion brie y reviews the history of the publication and the Library and lays out the “new” focus for Biblion. “With Biblion, we return to the idea of a publication focused entirely on the Library—its collections, services, history, and staff—insofar as these bear some interest to other libraries, scholars, researchers in fields supported by our collections, bibliophiles, library historians, and educators.”44

A new, elegant design and typeface, quality paperback binding, and illustrations which included photographs and reproductions of manuscript sources established Biblion as a first-rate scholarly journal. The cover of the first issue featured a candid photograph of celebrated author Vladimir Nabokov, with an inscription in his own hand: “The author, in Cambridge, Spring 1920. It was not unnatural for a Russian, when gradually discovering the pleasures of the Cam [River], to prefer at first a rowboat to the more proper canoe or punt.”45

This issue of the journal announced the new Vladimir Nabokov Archive in the Berg Collection in the Library. The issue carried statements by the author’s son, Dimitri, and Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd, who had worked for many years with Véra Nabokov, the novelist’s widow, to assemble and inventory the Archive and arrange for its move from Montreux, Switzerland.46

Biblion celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the Library in the Spring and Fall 1995 issues, jointly titled “The New York Public Library: Celebrating Its Second Century.”47 The covers of the commemorative issues include a striking graphic, featuring the word library in a spectrum of orthographic styles.

The double-entendre of the journal’s portmanteau title, bib and lion, is not evidently noted in the various issues of the journal. A lexical note in the first issue of the publication does, however, refer to the Greek word biblion, a “strip of papyrus. . .in the Middle Ages, it was the word applied to collections of fragments of ancient texts.”48

A special issue of Biblion for Volume 5, Spring 1997, showcases a symposium on “Global Library Strategies for the 21st Century: Summit of World Library Leaders,” with a keynote speech by Library Director Paul LeClerc. The summit was held in April 1996 and featured sessions on “Leadership Roles for Libraries in a Globally Connected Society,” “New Societal Roles for the Library,” and “Funding the Global Library.” Participants from twenty-seven countries attended the summit.49

Biblion, not unlike the New Yorker, organized its tables of contents by certain rubrics. Examples are: The History of Reading, Special Collections, Dance Archives, Annals, Oral History, New York City History, The Visual Record, Pioneers, Historical Encounters, The Written Record, Musical Archives, History of the Library, Biographer in the Stacks, and Library History.

A sampling of articles from the journal demonstrates the scope, variety, and scholarly content of the articles, as well as a kind of arch, even occasionally playful, editorial approach:

  • Translations of the Book of Common Prayer in The Research Libraries50
  • Mythology of Empire: Imperial Russian Coronation Albums51
  • I Could Do It While Shaving: Opening of the H.M. Lydenberg Records on the Librarian of Congress Nominations, 1939–4552
  • The Literature of Food and Drink53
  • From Gutenberg to William Gibson: Revolutions in Knowledge from the Renaissance into the 21st Century54
  • A Note on Syphilis as Americana55
  • The Library’s Map Division Goes to War, 1941–4556
  • The Electronic Librarian Is a Verb/The Electronic Library Is Not a Sentence57
  • The Future of Primary Records58 • Virtual Lit: A Discussion59
  • Artists under Oath: Biographers, Librarians, and the Biographical Enterprise60
  • Transatlantic Crossings: Publishing American Literature in Britain and British Literature in the United States61

The significance and impact of the Bulletin of the New York Public Library, and its successor journals, Bulletin of Research in the Humanities and Biblion, can be partly assessed by a bibliometric summary. According to UlrichsWeb database, these publications are indexed in twenty-eight databases. Two of the databases listed are the Russian Academy of Sciences Bibliographies and the Library Literature and Information Science Retrospective, 1905–1983.62 The number of citations to the Bulletin in the Library and Information Science Abstracts database is 122 (1970–1977). In the Modern Language Association’s International Bibliography, there are 687 citations to the Bulletin (1926–1977), 123 citations to the Bulletin of Research in the Humanities, and 57 citations to Biblion.63 In-depth citation analysis would be instructive.

Bringing Scholarly Publication into the Twenty-First Century

Biblion ceased publication in 2001. In an intriguing irony, masterfully described in an online post for The Atlantic by contributing editor Alexis Madrigal, the New York Public Library’s mobile application, named “Biblion,” was launched ten years later. Madrigal poses the question: “Did the New York Public Library Just Build the Magazine App of the Future?” According to Madrigal, “the first edition of Biblion focuses on the 1939–40 World Fair. And what’s fascinating to me is that you don’t feel like you’re reading something about the fair, but experiencing what it’s like to tool around behind the scenes at a museum or in an archive. The impression is spatial. You chart you own path, find pieces of text, photos or videos, and then assemble them yourself into a narrative of the fair.”64

With Biblion, scholars, library users, and indeed anyone connected to the Internet can begin to navigate the resources of the Library. The horizons for learning, engagement in diverse cultures, historical eras, arts, and sciences, as well as new scholarship, are widening again, a future which the first editors of the Bulletin of the New York Public Library could scarcely have imagined.

What are the implications for the development of digital libraries and their relationship to scholarly library publishing and unique local and archival collections? In the last few years, several developments have underscored how libraries are re-inventing themselves as publishers.65 The path-breaking work of journals like the Bulletin and its successors, as well as continuing publications and organizations such as Huntington Library Quarterly, Huntington Library Press, and the Harvard Library Bulletin, can inform and encourage the next chapter to be written in the history of the library as scholarly publisher.


  1. https://ulrichsweb.serialssolutions.com
  2. “Introductory Statement,” Bulletin of the New York Public Library (hereinafter Bulletin) 1, no. 1 (Jan. 1897): 12.
  3. Ibid., 11.
  4. Ibid., 13.
  5. John Bigelow, “Address to the Mayor, Aldermen and Commonality of the City of New York,” Bulletin 1, no. 1 (Jan. 1897): 23.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., 27.
  8. Bigelow, “Report of the Director,” Bulletin 1, no. 1 (Jan. 1897): 28–40.
  9. “New York Oath Rolls of 1753–57,” Bulletin 1, no. 2 (Feb. 1897): 44.
  10. 10. Ibid., 46. 37.
  11. “Periodicals Relating to Language and 38. Philology in the New York Public Library 39. and Columbia University Library,” 40. Bulletin 1, no. 2 (Feb. 1897): 54.
  12. “Principal Book Gifts of 1895 and 1896,” Bulletin 1, no. 2 (Feb. 1897): 57.
  13. “Documents Relative to the Higher 41. Education of Women,” Bulletin 1, no. 5 (May 1897): 137. 42.
  14. “The Continental Congress of 1774,” 43. Bulletin 1, no. 5 (May 1897): 125.
  15. Bulletin 10, no. 1 (Jan. 1906): 13.
  16. Margaret Bingham Stillwell, Bulletin 20, no. 10 (Oct. 1916): 737. 44.
  17. Bulletin 25, no. 12 (Dec. 1921): 799.
  18. William B. Gamble, Bulletin 40, no. 1 45. (Jan. 1936): 27. 46.
  19. Frank Weitenkampf, Bulletin 50, no. 3 47. (Mar. 1946): 171.
  20. Frederic G. Melcher, Bulletin 60, no. 48. 11–12 (Nov.–Dec. 1956): 619. 49.
  21. R.W. Stallman, ed., Bulletin 60, no. 9 50. (Sept. 1956): 455. 51.
  22. Phyllis Martin Hutchinson, Bulletin 60, no. 6 (June 1956): 263. 52.
  23. Walter Harding, Bulletin 60, no. 2 (Feb. 53. 1956): 74. 54.
  24. Elizabeth Nesbitt, Bulletin 60, no. 11–12 55. (Nov.–Dec. 1956): 605. 56.
  25. David V. Erdman, Bulletin 60, no. 8 (Aug. 57. 1956): 368.
  26. Richard H. Byrns, Bulletin 60, no. 7 (July 1956): 333.
  27. G. Thomas Tanselle, Bulletin 70, no. 1 60. (Jan. 1966): 50.
  28. James W. Tuttleton, Bulletin 70, no. 5 (May 1966): 305.
  29. Harsharan Singh Ahluwalia, Bulletin 70, no. 8 (Oct. 1966): 485.
  30. Deoch Fulton, in Daniel C. Haskel, ed, Bulletin of the New York Public Library: Index to Volumes 1–40, 1897–1936 (New York: New York Public Library, 1937), v.
  31. Martha Winburn England, Bulletin 80, no. 1 (Autumn 1976): 19.
  32. Dennis Douglas, Bulletin 80, no. 1 (Autumn 1976): 105.
  33. Mitchell A. Leaska, Bulletin 80, no. 2 (Winter 1977): 172.
  34. Margaret Comstock, Bulletin 80, no. 2 (Winter 1977): 252.
  35. Myron Magnet, Bulletin 80, no. 4 (Summer 1977): 474.
  36. “New Support for This Bulletin—and a New Name!,” Bulletin 80, no. 4 (Summer 1977): 449.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Ibid., 449–50.
  39. Ibid., 450.
  40. Herbert. Mitgang, “Albert Boni, Publisher, Dies, Founder of Boni & Liveright,” New York Times, Aug. 1, 1988, 14.
  41. Shakespeare Quarterly 33, no. 1 (Spring 1982): 128.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Timothy Healy, “Introductions to the Library,” Biblion: The Bulletin of the New York Public Library 1, no. 1 (Fall 1992): 3–4.
  44. Anne Skillion, “An Introduction to Biblion,” Biblion 1, no. 1 (Fall 1992): 4.
  45. Biblion 1, no. 1 (Fall 1992): cover.
  46. Ibid., 7–36.
  47. Biblion 3, no. 2 (Spring 1995); Biblion 4, no. 1 (Fall 1995).
  48. Biblion 1, no. 1 (Fall 1992), n.p.
  49. Biblion 5, no. 2 (Spring 1997): 2.
  50. Biblion 1, no. 1 (Fall 1992): 48
  51. Ibid., 77.
  52. Biblion 1, no. 2 (Spring 1993): 10.
  53. Biblion 2, no. 1 (Fall 1993): 19.
  54. Biblion 3, no. 1 (Fall 1994): 5.
  55. Ibid., 140.
  56. Biblion 3, no. 2 (Spring 1995): 126.
  57. Biblion 4, no. 1 (Fall 1995): 139
  1. Biblion 5, no. 1 (Fall 1996): 4.
  2. Ibid., 33.
  3. Ibid., 85.
  4. Biblion 5, no. 2 (Spring 1997): 171.
  5. https://ulrichsweb.serialssolutions.com.
  6. http://eds.b.ebscohost.com
  7. Alexis C. Madrigal, “Did the New York Public Library Just Build the Magazine App of the Future?,” The Atlantic, May 18, 2011.
  8. Thomas S. Deliyannides, “Incentivizing Open Access: The Library as Publisher” (presented at SPARC Open Access Meeting, Kansas City, MO, Mar. 2012).

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