09 December 2020 Blogs

R.R. Bowker: From Mugwump to Metadata

This blog provides a historical review of the life of R.R. Bowker, and the dynamic impact and legacy that he's left on the library world today

By Bob Nardini

Today the largest library on the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus is closed to most people due to COVID-19. But one hundred years ago, despite lingering cases of that era’s influenza pandemic, at the building’s opening in 1920 the day was marked with public ceremony. The new campus landmark, built on the site of an aged, cramped, unfit, firetrap of a library torn down several years before, went up during the years of World War I, with “difficulties of all sorts. Delays in delivery, freight embargoes, shortage of labor, of steel, of timber, of coal, the war and two drafts … the days when our young men were going off to the camps, and only older laborers and skilled mechanics were left behind”. Classes were cancelled as 3,000 people gathered for the dedication and keynote address from a leading figure in the day’s book and library world whose name is still known a century later, R.R. Bowker.

My ProQuest colleagues at our New Providence, New Jersey location don’t work with typewriters or dress in high collars, but they do carry the name Bowker into the twenty-first century, the third in which “Bowker” and “bibliographic information” have been synonymous to anyone who would know what that term meant. Today we call it “metadata”, an adhesive connecting people looking for a book to a surrogate version of their book, records exact enough that a library or store or vendor can provide the right book and not some similar one among dozens or even hundreds of close matches. All but invisible to the readers who depend upon it but more central than ever to publishers, booksellers, and libraries, bibliographic information has been an industry within an industry since the nineteenth century.

R.R. Bowker, “Richard Rogers”, born in 1848 in Salem, Massachusetts, spent most of his life in New York City. He began his career in newspapers and by the early 1870s was literary editor at the New York Evening Mail. From this post Bowker took note of Walt Whitman, then in mid-career, once referring to him as “Yawp Hitman”, but in balance also judging that “behind his silly affectedness and dry cataloguing there is a fresh, broad, wholesome Americanism”. Both men came of age as a rural, agricultural nation changed into one dominated by industry. Like Whitman, Bowker wrote poetry, although he was no poet. Bowker’s better witness of his own experience was displayed in a magazine series for Harper’s where he wrote about industrial processes like sugar refining, textile manufacture, and papermaking.

Even candy-making on industrial scale, as Bowker described in 1886 how sugar was mixed to prevent crystallization, pressed into molds, finished with hot cream, then dried. The series displayed a talent for detail which enabled Bowker’s rise when he joined the industrial world himself. He became involved in one of the industries he’d written about, in fact, electrical power, when he was named an officer in Thomas Edison’s electric lighting company in 1890. He stayed until 1899 and remained a lifelong friend of Edison’s. Later Bowker was involved with manufacturing companies and even tried his hand as an inventor. He patented one invention, an electrical distribution system, but didn’t get as far with others, like his emergency safety device for submarines.

Bowker was deeply involved with politics as well, supporting what was almost a catalog of the Progressive movement: voter referendum, direct election of senators, ballot reform, civil service reform, progressive income tax, utilities regulation, tariff reduction, birth control, the League of Nations, settlement houses, Hampton and Tuskegee institutes, the American Civil Liberties Union; he opposed child labor, restrictive immigration, American imperialism, Tammany Hall, the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.

Bowker was also deeply involved in national politics. In 1880, he led a group of independent Republicans opposed to the day’s deep political corruption who blocked the re-nomination for president of Ulysses Grant. “Mugwump” was an Algonquin-derived word for “chief” meant as ridicule by their opponents, but then embraced by reform Republicans who in 1884 deserted their party’s presidential candidate and went for the Democrats’ nominee, Grover Cleveland. Bowker was prominent enough among the Mugwumps to argue publicly in the press with Theodore Roosevelt, then a member of the New York State Assembly, and to draw fire in a New-York Tribune editorial where, putting Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” to sarcastic purpose, the paper expressed hope that government “of Bowker, by Bowker, for Bowker should not perish from the earth”.

Today we know Bowker not from any of this, but for a legacy in what his biographer called the “bibliographical profession”. He was less an expert bibliographer, though, than an effective manager, and the struggling publishing and bibliographical ventures of his less disciplined partners, Melvil Dewey and Frederick Leypoldt, might not have survived without him. He began to work with Leypoldt’s Publishers’ Weekly in 1873, became its editor in 1875, and bought the publication, by then nearly bankrupt, in 1878.

Meanwhile, in 1876, Dewey, Leypoldt, and Bowker had been instrumental in founding the American Library Association and its official publication at the time, Library Journal. Dewey was managing editor until, having made a wreck of its finances, Leypoldt and Bowker parted ways with him in 1880. Leypoldt, himself impecunious to the end, died in 1884, leaving debt and a roster of publications which included not only PW and LJ, still a money-draining venture, but one more publication that’s survived to the present day, Index Medicus; another that survived briefly into the twenty-first century with a final issue dated 2000, Publishers Trade List Annual; and a handful of forgotten others. Bowker took management of them all to become, as he put it, “unwittingly a bibliographer”.

In 1911 he incorporated the R.R. Bowker Company, where despite the onset of blindness Bowker remained involved and in charge until his death in 1933. The company grew and finally prospered, as Bowker editorialized on copyright reform, postal legislation, discount practices, and other book trade issues of the early twentieth century, while staying active in his civic and political causes. Only a capable staff made this all possible, and in his will Bowker left stock to each employee who’d been with him for two years or more.

Today Bowker’s namesake company provides metadata to some 10,000 customers around the world, including its sister companies at ProQuest. New Providence, a community of just over 12,000 people, is a modest commute west of New York, the company’s home before a 1991 move to New Jersey. Today the Bowker company is dedicated to receiving, improving, recording, and distributing the metadata received daily from publishers. That phrasing could have time-traveled intact from the 1870s, but of course in 2020 the processes of bibliographic work, if not their essence, are entirely different. Details of Title, Author, Subject and everything else, whether flowing in or being pushed out, are managed electronically. Bulky mailings of Advance Book Information sheets, ABIs as they will be remembered by some readers of this blog, have been history for years.

So is R.R. Bowker himself, who oversees today’s office as a two-toned framed photograph above a room where some 60 staff members—prior to COVID-19—might be working on Books in Print, whose purpose he would understand at once. Bowker services to self-publishing authors wouldn’t seem entirely new. Whitman brought out the first edition of Leaves of Grass from a Brooklyn printing shop where he paid for typesetting and did much of the work. Bowker has been the official ISBN agency for the United States since 1968 and today maintains more than 50 million of these identifiers so essential to the book trade automation R.R. Bowker would certainly have embraced. Libraries use Bowker’s Syndetics Unbound to enrich catalogs and discovery layers so that readers know they’ve found a book they’ll want and might serendipitously discover new ones they didn’t know about. Bowker would recognize the value. “We are facing an age of too many books,” he said in 1926, “if not of too many readers”.

In 1883 on a trip to London, Bowker celebrated progress in the larger library movement. “It will be a chief glory of the nineteenth century”, he predicted to a group of librarians, “that it has organized knowledge”. We’re still working on that as we address the challenges of our own century with a foundation provided by the man who on that Ann Arbor day in 1920, with the Great War past and the pandemic fading, expressed hope that “out of any chaos, out of any darkness, there will shine the dawning light of a new day.”

For more information about Syndetics Unbound, please visit Syndetics.com.