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New in Digital Collections: The Bay Psalm Book

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Bay Psalm Book
The Whole Booke of Psalms Faithfully Translated into English Metre.  Cambridge, MA: Stephen Daye, 1640.  Rare Book Division.  The New York Public Library.

Recently, The New York Public Library digitized in its entirety one of its great treasures, the 1640 printing of The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre.  Better known as the Bay Psalm Book, this work is significant in that it was the first book printed in British North America.

The Bay Psalm Book was printed under trying circumstances.  The Reverend Jose Glover, who sailed to Massachusetts in 1638 in order to establish the first press in the fledgling colony, died during the transatlantic passage.  The ownership of his printing equipment passed subsequently to his wife, Elizabeth, who set up the press in Cambridge on the grounds of Harvard College in late 1638.  However, the task of running the press fell to the Glovers’ indentured servant, Stephen Daye, who was a locksmith by trade and, by most accounts, barely literate. 

Undeterred by the difficulties of his circumstances—and likely assisted by his teenaged son, Matthew, who himself may have had some training as a printer—Daye set to work almost immediately.  The initial work issued from the press was a broadside, a freeman’s oath, which appeared in early 1639, followed shortly thereafter by an almanac.  The Bay Psalm Book appeared the following year in an edition of perhaps as many as 1700 copies, a large number given the time and place of its publication.  Today, only 11 copies of this work are known to survive, making it one of the great rarities of early printed Americana.

While the Bay Psalm Book is full of typographical errors and is far from being an aesthetically pleasing production, its importance cannot be overstated.  Indeed, the book symbolizes the introduction of printing into the British colonies, which was reflective of the importance placed on reading and education by the Puritans and, somewhat later, on the concepts of freely available information, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press.  All this, in turn, fed into the revolutionary impulse that gave rise 136 years later to the United States of America.

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I had a paperback

I had a paperback reproduction of this book in the 1970s, put out during the Revolutionary War Bicentennial celebrations when there was a sort of revival of interest in early American music. I remember the charming, "lumpy" way the psalm verses were cut up to make them fit the lines as rhyming poetry. "The Lord to me a shepherd is, And nothing want shall I, And in the fields of verdant grass, He makes me down to lie ... ".

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