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Gateway to Black Print Culture: New Video about Afro-Americana Collection at Library Company of Philadelphia

Posted on 03/30/2015

Readex has partnered with the Library Company of Philadelphia to create Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922, an online version of one of the world’s preeminent collections for African American studies. While in Philadelphia, members of the Readex team had the opportunity to visit the Library Company for a firsthand look at original documents found in this newly digitized collection. For a quick overview of Afro-Americana Imprints, see the video below:

Krystal Appiah, the Library Company’s Curator of African American History, was one of our hosts during this vKrystal Appiah, Curator of African American History, Library Company of Philadelphiaisit. As part of her daily work, she helps a diverse group of researchers find relevant materials in African American history, literature and related fields. With her deep understanding of the Afro-Americana Collection—an accumulation that began with Benjamin Franklin and steadily increased throughout the Library Company’s history—Appiah expertly navigates the stacks to locate just the right item.

Appiah pulled some rare books, pamphlets, and broadsides for our team to view, including Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the 1861 autobiographical novel by Harriet Jacobs. While Incidents is just one of many slave narratives in the collection, its focus on the female experience is uncommon. For many years, it was considered a work of fiction, but researchers have demonstrated most of the events and people described were absolutely true.

This copy of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was given to the Library Company by Rebecca Darby Smith, a young Quaker woman who befriended Jacobs. The book uniquely includes two inscriptions, one signed “From Harriet” and the other signed “Linda.” Jacobs wrote under the penname Linda Brent, and both Jacobs’ pseudonym and true name have been tied together in this copy of the book.

The "From Harriet" inscription in Library Company copy of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)
The "Linda" inscription in the same Library Company copy of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)

Feeling the texture of the book’s paper, unfolding the opening pages, and admiring the way the ink has seeped into the leaves 150 years after Jacobs carefully drafted her inscriptions in evenly spaced lines with tall, lean loops on each letter “H” and “L”—this is what experiencing printed documents firsthand is all about.

“I will always be a fan of holding an actual document in your hand,” Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Director of the Program in African American History at the Library Company of Philadelphia, said.

But, as we know, this is not always possible. That’s where digitized resources, like those available from Readex, play an important role in broadening access to primary source materials.

“One of the things technology is doing with regards to the digitization of pamphlets, monographs, and newspapers is opening doors for students to encounter these worlds on their own,” Dunbar said. “It helps scholars bring the first-person voice into the classroom.”

For more information about Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact

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