Thomas Randolph Adams, Head Librarian of the John Carter Brown Library from 1956 to 1983, devoted much of his professional career to achieving what is known as “bibliographical control” over the plethora of political pamphlets churned out by opponents in the controversies that began with the Stamp Act and culminated in the American Revolution.

His first book-length study in 1965 was American Independence: The Growth of an Idea, a bibliographical study of the American political pamphlets printed between 1764 and 1776. For the second study, requiring two volumes in 1980, he crossed the Atlantic in The American Controversy: A Bibliographical Study of the British Pamphlets About the American Disputes, 1764-1783. In fact, much of the research for that volume was performed in Great Britain, where many of the key works were held in close proximity.


Thomas R. Adams, American Independence: The Growth of an Idea. A Bibliographical Study of the American Political Pamphlets Printed Between 1764 and 1776 Dealing With the Dispute Between Great Britain and Her Colonies.  Providence: Brown University Press, 1965

One of the great services of this American study is its chronological arrangement, allowing the scholar to review the topic year-by-year. But another signal achievement is the “Index to Pamphlet Exchanges” in an appendix, fostering quick access to the works responding to a seminal pamphlet.


Thomas Randolph Adams, soon after taking the helm of the John Carter Brown Library in 1956, succeeding the renowned Lawrence Wroth.


Thomas R. Adams, The American Controversy: A Bibliographical Study of the British Pamphlets About the American Disputes, 1764-1783. Providence: Brown University Press; New York: The Bibliographical Society of America, 1980.

Here again in this two-volume compendium, Adams presents a year-by-year survey of the British pamphlet output, addressing the growing crisis. The book is greatly enriched by an appendix listing Pamphlet Exchanges and another listing works by place of publication. A title index and general index are invaluable as guides to this unwieldy literature.


Librarian Thomas R. Adams with his staff at the John Carter Brown Library in 1971.

Left to Right, Front row: Woodley L. Wright, Laurence C. Hardy, Jeannette D. Black, Thomas R. Adams, Dorothy “Doppie” Watts, Donald L. Farren, Samuel J. Hough Second Row: Ilse E. Kramer, Stephen Ferguson, Margaret Fleming, Jean Harper Selch, Deborah Segal, Kathleen Garin, Maria E. Cassiet, Diana Steimle
Third row: Frank Coyle, Steven J. Kittner, Frances “Frana” Low, Grace Haskell, James Hyat, Douglas Sisk

Thomas R. Adams, seated in front of a blackboard bearing what might be part of a  signature collation. One of Adams’ missions at the university was the teaching of a course in bibliography. Key to this was instructing students how books were put together in the early centuries of printing, with the help of “signature” marks that told the binder how to combine folded sheets of printed paper. Students learned how to describe a book in physical terms, laying out a formula that showed what the printer had planned, any signage or other serious errors he might have made, and how the binder might have gone wrong in implementing the plan.


The JCB is wired, circa 1981. To prepare the Library for machine-readable cataloguing in 1981, a section of the old basement stacks was freed to provide space for a mainframe terminal. Left to right: Susan L. Newbury, Catalogue Librarian, Leslie Patterson, Cataloguing Assistant, T.R. Adams.


“The Bookseller: A key in a frantic search,” Brown Alumni Monthly, December 1968.

The importance of the book trade to a research collection was the focus of a BAM article detailing T. R. Adams’ two week trip to Europe to broaden relationships with British and continental dealers.


The French Image of America / by Durand Echeverria and Everett C. Willkie, Jr. (1994)
The editors of this bibliographical guide to French books printed before 1816 relating to the British northern colonies and the United States expressed their gratitude to Thomas R. Adams and Kenneth E. Carpenter of Harvard, who “have taken an active interest in this work, and by their patient and scholarly advice have considerably improved it.” The project office was in fact in the JCB for years, and its holdings provided much of the raw material. The arrangement is chronological and valuable indexes provide other access points.


European Americana

The library community and the historians they served had long desired a “union catalogue” of Americana that would list the holdings of major repositories, in order to grease the wheels of research. An opportunity for a different solution occurred one day in Tom’s office.

Albert Boni, the inspired publisher who had launched the Modern Library, the “Little Leather Library,” and the Readex Microprint Corporation, worked for years with the American Antiquarian Society to create a microprint (later microfiche) series of the texts of American imprints before 1801. As this project neared an end, he approached Tom Adams with the idea of producing a similar series on European books about the Americas, using the JCB’s focused collections as the basis and following the order of Joseph Sabin’s Bibliotheca Americana. Tom was closely familiar with the shortcomings of Sabin’s rich bibliography, alphabetically presented in 29 volumes over a publishing span of decades. He countered that the field required a new listing in chronological order, from 1493 to 1800, to be most useful to the scholar. Further, he offered that the field of Americana had grown since Sabin’s time in the 19th century to include the developing fields of science and literary study, much increasing the works that needed to be included. Albert Boni came to accept this wise counsel, and funded a number of initiatives at the Library that became the foundation of a series to be called European Americana.

Thirty-five years ago, in 1980, the first volume of European Americana: A Chronological Guide to Works Printed in Europe Relating to the Americas, 1493-1776 [i.e., 1750] rolled off the press. The project editor was John Alden, then recently retired as Keeper of Rare Books at the Boston Public Library and well known for his Rhode Island Imprints and other publications. Under Adams’ influence, three kinds of indexes were also provided. Five more volumes appeared in the succeeding 17 years, and just five years ago, a digital version was launched by the EBSCO firm for the users of its other databases. All of this was made possible by Albert Boni’s commitment, sustained by his successors, and with the vital support of the National Endowment for the Humanities. But it would never have happened without the grantwriting skills and steadfast dedication of Thomas R. Adams.


Thomas R. Adams, JCB Director, in 1979. (Richard Hurley photo)

Adams’ official portrait, with a backdrop of the earliest English books relating to the Americas. He is shown holding the Bay Psalm Book, The Whole Booke of Psalmes, printed in metrical English in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1640, the first book printed in North America, a major achievement for the time.

This symbol indicates the entire scanned book,
may be read on the John Carter Brown Library's Internet Archive collection. >>>
  Exhibition prepared by dennis landis, kim nusco, neil safier, and kenneth c. ward.
on view in the reading room from october 2015 to january 2016.