This week news sources and blogs across the country are rife with biblio buzz over the Old South Church’s decision to part with an extremely rare copy of the Bay Pslam Book, published in 1640. Out of 1,600 original editions, only 11 editions remain, and the Old South Church owns 2. Church members expect the book to fetch between $10 million and $20 million at auction. On Sunday they voted to approve the sale, with 271 yays to only 34 nays.
Most of the news coverage of the event focuses on the tough internal battles the church has faced in its attempt to reconcile their desire to preserve heritage and culture with their responsibilities to fulfill their capital needs. Many church members are eager to use the revenue from the auction to make repairs to the building and offer services to the homeless. Meanwhile church historian Jeff Makholm is furious, and vocal with the press. He told the Boston Herald the book “is a priceless piece of Puritan history. For us to sell it, it’s bordering on preposterous and irresponsible. It would be like the state of Israel selling the Dead Sea Scrolls to build highways.” Here at the JCB we’re a little less concerned with the debate over whether or not the church should sell the book. It is not a museum or a library, and therefore the members’ decisions to acquire or deaccession materials are guided by a different mission and purpose. At the end of the day, the sale of Old South Church’s Bay Pslam book does little to shake the status quo of the biblio world. They do have 2.
We are, however, fascinated by the number of news articles mistakenly identifying the Bay Psalm Book as “the first book printed in North America.” Even esteemed auctioneer David Redden of Sotheby’s told the Boston Herald, “It is our first printed book. It’s the first original publication in America, too.” Our curator of Latin American books, Ken Ward, is quick to point out that the Bay Pslam Book was printed over 100 years after the Mexican publication of Breve y mas compendiosa doctrina Christiana en lengua Mexicana y Castellana. While this volume from 1539 is believed to no longer exist, Ward says there are scores of other North and South American books that far outstrip the ages of the Puritan publications. The JCB alone is home to 67 American books produced before 1600. Happily the staff at the JCB are not the only people to notice the errors in the news stories. In response to a small slew of visitor comments, NPR has since issued a correction to their headline and a postscript note on the Mexican book trade.
The JCB’s extensive holdings in early Latin American and North American imprints, as well as in related European materials, make it possible for researchers to study colonial events from the broadest possible perspective. The collection contains 50,000 rare books in dozens of subject areas with particularly strong resources on the Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English explorations of the New World. It should therefore come as no surprise that the JCB has possessed its own copy of the Bay Psalm Book since 1881. This copy holds particular numinous value to the library because George Parker Winship (first librarian of the JCB) referenced it while writing his comprehensive history of the Cambridge press and the Bay Psalm book. A full digital scan of the The whole booke of Psalmes faithfully translated into English metre can be viewed on the website of the world digital library.