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An Unexpected Influence: Photostats in Special Collections Libraries

In 1912, the John Carter Brown Library (JCB) of Providence, Rhode Island, acquired a machine that would have an “unexpected influence” on library operations. The Photostat was a copying camera that could be used to take and print photographs easily and on site. For the first time, libraries could replicate not just select pages, but entire books. The introduction of this technology to special collections would have, in the words of one user, a revolutionary effect on research and bibliography.

Through the lens of the photostat, this article illuminates how librarians in the United States established standards of accuracy for textual copies at the beginning of the twentieth century. It centers on the case of early Americana collections, such as the JCB, which were among the first libraries in the US to photostat historical documents. Motivated by the needs of individual researchers as well as by a national interest in standardizing American history and preserving Indigenous knowledge, these libraries began experimenting with the photostat through the replication of Spanish-, French-, and Indigenous-language documents. As a result, the standards they developed for large scale replication originated in efforts to preserve Indigenous knowledge and to control the international circulation of information. As this article will show, these standards cannot be disentangled from the imperial and post-colonial power structures out of which they emerged.