ESTC records as evidence.

I’ve been trying to understand how a seventeenth-century bookseller signals that they’re using a special privilege to print a book. Somehow, the book must have signaled to a member of the Stationers’ Company that the bookseller had the appropriate rights, even if they were not in the Register Book. Otherwise, printers would have to keep coming by and asking to see your privilege. Perhaps they just knew? Or, perhaps there was a parallel record of some sort?

I hypothesize that the imprint itself noted the special situation. Those printing for the King directly might style themselves “printer to the King,” so maybe the phrase “printer to” signals a source of authority.

Could “printer to the Royal Society,” for example, signal that a book was printed under the society’s charter and license?

One half of this is easy enough to check, do the books authorized under the society’s charter always say “printer to the Royal Society” in the imprint? It just required looking at 1,194 books over a period of about two days. The technical details are a bit tedious, so I’ll link them below, but the high-level approach is straightforward:

  1. First, download the records from the English Short Title Catalogue for each known printer to the Royal Society and any records that mention the “Royal Society” at all.
  2. Secord, convert them to a record format. I use GNU Recutils because it’s easy.
  3. Third, go through the records, one at a time, and add a new field for the authority under which a book was printed and the booksellers who undertook that printing.
  4. Fourth, use your structured data to look for authorized printing and make charts. Here’s one:

Printers to the Royal Society

Furthermore, of the 1,194 records I looked at, only one book was authorized by the Royal Society, but did not say “to the Royal Society,” or equivalent in Latin, or abbreviated. There were several broadsides and lists of members that lacked the “to the” phrasing, but licensing for those worked differently.

There is one potential shortcoming of this approach. In step three, I relied on my judgment to decide the authority and the printer. Imprints can lie about who printed them. More to the point, if the book isn’t licensed by the Royal Society, but looks like it is, I wouldn’t have been able to tell. I think errors of inclusion are small, however, since I spend a lot of time reading the minutes of the Council and am used to the sorts of things the society authorized.

The improved study would use the list of printing ordered in the Council minutes to find out if things that looked authorized really were, and to find out if something authorized fell outside of normal patterns or channels.

Yet, I think this basic approach could work well with other questions that can use the evidence recorded by the ESTC.

The technical description expects you to understand the basics of GNU Recutils, GNU Emacs, Elisp, and GNU Bash, but all four of those can be read about on a wide variety of websites. Understanding how to reproduce this work might make a good introduction.

This research is included paper I’m giving at the upcoming CHAPTER Conference 2022.