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Pamphlet Pandemonium, 1642 – 2012: A Newberry 125 Lecture

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Why would the Newberry collect duplicates of something as seemingly ordinary and ephemeral as a pamphlet with a Church of Scotland petition and King Charles I’s formal rejection of it? The general practice may seem unnecessary, even ill-advised, but as two printings of this particular pamphlet demonstrate, libraries collect apparent duplicates because they are sometimes different in subtle, revealing ways. The implications are various, with a place not just in the interpretation of history but in debates about the digitalization of library collections.

In 1643 a delegation from the Church of Scotland traveled to England to petition King Charles on matters of state and religion. The Scots believed they could devise a common anti-papist, anti-episcopalian religion that would strengthen Charles’ tenuous hold over his three domains, while currying favor with Parliament. After the king peremptorily rejected the Scottish delegation’s advice, his response was published, along with the original petition. The resultant pamphlets contributed to the “pamphlet pandemonium” of the time, which saw the liberating dissemination of printed information—and sometimes by doubts over authority, authenticity, and authorship. The two printings of To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty: The Humble Petition of the Commissioners of the General Assembly featured in The Newberry 125 exhibition both purport to be original—but they are actually not, which raises interesting questions. What differentiates these pamphlets from one another? Who were the individuals responsible for changing some things and not others? What was their intention? Did they have profit or politics in their sights? How can we know which version we are looking at? And what are the implications of all of this for readers of online, digital versions of physical materials?

David Spadafora is president and a librarian of the Newberry and an historian of European thought.

This lecture is sponsored by the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation and is part of a series of programs that take a closer look at items in The Newberry 125 anniversary exhibition.

This program is free and no reservations are required.

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