“First Among Many”: Library of Congress Exhibit on Early American Printing

Thomas Paine's Common Sense


If you find yourself in Washington, DC this summer, the Library of Congress has a must-see, free public exhibit covering the foundation of printing in the American colonies.  Called “First Among Many: The Bay Psalm Book and Early Moments in American Printing,” the exhibit will run from June 4, 2015 to January 2, 2016. The LoC press release says the amazing collection of printed papers will:

“…tell the story of early printing in the American colonies, spanning 100 years, as printing evolved from a colonial necessity to the clarion of freedom.”


The centerpiece of the exhibit is two copies of the Bay Psalm Book of 1640. Only 11 copies are known to exist, and the book is both the first English-language book in North America and the first printed book of American poetry. It is also the most expensive printed book ever – having sold at Sotheby’s for $14,165,000 to entrepreneur and philanthropist David Rubenstein in 2013.

You can peruse the Bay Psalm Book online for free (see below), courtesy of the Old South Church in Boston – but nothing tops the ability to see the actual printed work in person this year at the Library of Congress.

Digital Bay Psalm Book


Other rare printed items from the colonial period will also be on exhibit:

  • A Poor Richard’s Almanac by Ben Franklin from the 1740s
  • Thomas Paine’s Common Sense pamphlet from 1776
  • The Federalist essays of 1788 from Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay
  • Poet Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Wheatley was the first African American published poet and the first published African American woman
  • An Algonquian Indian Bible from 1663
  • The first novel ever printed in the colonies: The Power of Sympathy, 1789 by William Hill Brown

Phillis Wheatley's poems and Poor Richard's Almanack


For those unable to get to DC, the Library of Congress will also maintain an online version – here. This exhibit truly highlights the role printing played in America’s founding and independence. That influence continues today as print evolves through an ongoing information and technological revolution. Print is communication – it will change, but never be relegated to just a museum exhibit.



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