Lapidus Revolutionary-era Collection Digitized for 21st-Century Scholars

February 1st, 2012 / Advancement

Photo credit: Denise Applewhite

When Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense in 1776 he no doubt hoped his words would endure, but he might be surprised by how they are being preserved. Historians and history enthusiasts can now read one of his pamphlets on a computer screen in its original format, digitally flipping its 50 pages.

Paine’s seminal work as well as a treasure house of more than 150 other books, pamphlets, and prints in the Sid Lapidus ’59 Collection on Liberty and the American Revolution are now available in the Princeton University Digital Library. The collection’s themes include the intellectual origins of the American Revolution; the Revolution itself; the early years of the republic; the resulting spread of democratic ideas in the Atlantic world; and the effort to abolish slavery in both Great Britain and the United States.

Avid book collector Lapidus, a history major as an undergraduate, gave the physical collection to Princeton on the occasion of his 50th Reunion in 2009. The library hosted a major exhibition and published a 200-page catalogue to mark the event.

But James Basker of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, a nonprofit that supports the study of American history in secondary schools, had another idea. He broached the subject of the collection going digital when the Firestone exhibit opened, and again when it closed. His argument that digitizing the collection would allow even more people to enjoy it sounded to his friend Lapidus like, well, common sense.

“I want this material to be available to scholars of all levels, to open the minds of young people and those who are more experienced,” Lapidus explained.

Their conversation expanded to include Stephen Ferguson, assistant University librarian for Rare Books and Special Collections and curator of Rare Books. Soon a core team of eight took on scanning the collection’s approximately 32,000 pages, a task that took almost a year.

“The gift in 2009 provided a wonderful exhibition and an award-winning catalogue,” Ferguson said. “This scanning project builds on the success of that first endeavor. We are hoping to eventually add full-text keyword access, which will make searching the documents more effective for readers.”

Additionally, the Lehrman Institute has created several resources for secondary school teachers based on the Lapidus collection and plans more in the future.

Perhaps it’s happy circumstance that another work by Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man (also part of Princeton’s digital collection), ignited Lapidus’ book-collecting passion -- which he calls “one of the best diseases you can have.” Princeton is richer for it, as are the scholars who will now benefit from his enthusiastic pursuit of history via revolutionary technology.