Bibliographer Interview: Joseph Felcone

Our occasional series featuring interviews with bibliographers continues today with Joseph Felcone of New Jersey, who published the descriptive bibliography Printing in New Jersey 1754 - 1800 last year (2012) with the American Antiquarian Society, with distribution by Oak Knoll Press. The book was designed by Jerry Kelly.

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What drew you to 18th-century printing in New Jersey?  Where did that interest originate?

It’s the intersection of my interest in New Jersey history with my interest in early books and particularly the booktrade in early America. I’ve collected printed New Jerseyana assiduously for forty years. It’s the most important collection ever built privately, and it ranks with the half dozen or so leading institutional collections. I’ve published quite a number of books on both New Jersey history and New Jersey bibliography, so, for me, my collection is both a necessary working library as well as a collection of rare books.

Your book is a “descriptive bibliography.” How does that differ from a conventional bibliography?

American imprint bibliographies have traditionally been checklists--chronological lists, of widely varying scholarship, recording everything printed in a particular state or town or produced by an individual printer. In 1974 William Miller raised the bar dramatically with his descriptive bibliography of Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia printing. I’ve attempted to raise the bar even higher. In addition to full bibliographical apparatus such as collations and expanded pagination and contents statements, I’ve identified type, paper and watermarks, and contemporary bindings, as well as the copy-specific attributes of every copy located.

What was the hardest part about compiling the bibliography?

The final mile. Turning a massive database, assembled over more than twenty-five years, into a coherent and consistent book. I was very fortunate to have two of the country’s finest bibliographers--David Whitesell and Michael Winship--as my readers, in addition to the extraordinary resources of the American Antiquarian Society and particularly its publications department.

How about the most rewarding part?

Discovering previously unrecorded New Jersey printing, chiefly in smaller repositories such as regional historical societies but also in the National Archives of the United Kingdom.

On Oak Knoll’s site, it says that you visited 115 libraries as you compiled this bibliography.  Which were your favorites?

I really don’t have any favorites. Different libraries offered different rewards. The major scholarly repositories are, with a few exceptions, well catalogued and efficiently run, and most of the rare books curators are old friends. But there are rarely surprises. Smaller repositories are a very mixed bag, but always exciting because you never know what you’ll find.

You mentioned your personal New Jersey collection. Are you still adding to it?

A large part of my life over the last forty years has been spent building this collection and researching and cataloguing every book. In 1996 I published a bibliographical catalogue of all the books in the collection from 1698 through 1860, in two volumes, 1,100 pages. Today that same catalogue would be almost twice as large. I add to the collection continually.

What’s your next project?

I have one more New Jersey historical book to finish. Then I plan to research and write up the 1861-1900 part of my collection and publish a new catalogue of the entire collection from 1698 through 1900.

Felcone’s bibliography is available to purchase from Oak Knoll Press.
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