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Henry Snyder Wins National Humanities Medal

Henry Snyder Wins National Humanities Medal

Historian is honored for his work to preserve the record of California’s newspapers and historical documents of the English-speaking world.

(November 14, 2007)

Henry L. SnyderEnlarge

Henry L. Snyder

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Henry Snyder, director of UC Riverside’s Center for Bibliographical Studies and Research and a tireless advocate of preserving and cataloging California’s historical newspapers, will receive a National Humanities Medal on Thursday, Nov. 15, in a ceremony at the White House.

He is the first professor from UC Riverside and the sixth faculty member in the UC system to receive the medal since the award was created in 1997.

The medal, to be presented by President Bush, honors individuals or groups whose work has broadened citizens' engagement with the humanities or helped preserve and expand Americans' access to important resources in the humanities, according to the National Endowment for the Humanities Web site. The NEH is an independent grant-making agency of the U.S. government that supports research, education, preservation and public programs in the humanities.

Among the previous 95 winners were California historian Kevin Starr, novelists Tom Wolfe and Toni Morrison, “Miss Manners” (Judith Martin), actor Hal Holbrook, sociologist Robert Bellah, composer Quincy Jones and film-maker Steven Spielberg.

Snyder, 78, is one of 10 National Humanities Medal recipients for 2007. He was recognized for his work on three extensive research projects — one lasting nearly 30 years — that document the output of the press of the British Isles and North America in the early modern period.

“The thing that makes us human beings is memory. This is printed memory,” Snyder said of the projects. “It’s how we recall our heritage. As we try to recover our past and try to understand what happened and how cultures evolved, we need to have access to these records.”

The projects include:

- The English Short-Title Catalogue, a searchable database of every known publication in England and its dependencies from the birth of the printing press in 1473 to 1800. It is the largest bibliography of its kind ever attempted, Snyder said, and lists nearly 500,000 items, including books, handbills, fliers, pamphlets and warrants. The catalog, whose American component is funded by the NEH, is a joint effort of UCR’s Center for Bibliographical Studies and Research, the British Library and the American Antiquarian Society.

- The California Newspaper Project, which began in 1990 to preserve and index the state’s newspapers from 1846, when the first publication appeared, to 1922. It is part of the larger United States Newspaper Program, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities to preserve and inventory the nation’s newspapers.

- The Catálogo Colectivo de Impresos Latinoamericanos hasta 1851, a searchable database of Spanish- and Portuguese-language publications printed in North and South America, the Caribbean and the Philippines from about 1539 through 1850. The latter project began in 2000. It has been funded by the National Science Foundation.

“Henry Snyder is richly deserving of this award,” said Stephen Cullenberg, dean of the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at UCR. “He has toiled relentlessly over many years to preserve some of the most important print archives that we have. His research has been supported by millions of dollars in federal and private foundation grants. He has been innovative and cutting-edge in his efforts to digitize these archives. Generations of scholars and citizens alike will have him to thank for the preservation of the cultures that his archives have brought to light.”

Snyder, a scholar of British history and UCR professor of history emeritus, became the American director of the English Short-Title Catalogue in 1978.

“It’s been a marvelous odyssey,” said Snyder, who with teams of researchers scoured libraries around the world for printed documents produced over a span of three centuries.

“We’re recovering the culture of the English-speaking world,” he said. “You never know where you’ll find something.”

For example, the Academy of Sciences library in Estonia had 112 items to list in the catalog, 17 of which were new entries.

Another discovery was an important 1710 election tract that prompted satirist Jonathan Swift to start the Examiner to defend the Tories. No copy was known previously to exist. The English Short-Title Catalogue now lists 20 copies of four different printings of the tract. Snyder purchased a copy, which is now at UCR’s Tomás Rivera Library.

In another case, researchers combing the British National Archives — which date back 1,000 years — found 15,000 copies of 9,000 items, 6,000 of which had never been reported.

“In almost every library we go into we find something new,” Snyder said.

Directing the California Newspaper Project led Snyder to tiny Gold Rush towns, stifling attics and musty archives.

“California has the second-largest number of published newspapers in the United States, even though the first one wasn’t published until 1846,” he said. “Newspapers are the single most important record of local history, yet also the most ephemeral. They don’t survive. People read them one day and burn them in the fireplace the next.”

On one hunt for historical newspapers Snyder inventoried 25 years worth of eight Fresno County weeklies stored in the attic of the publisher’s office, an old house. The heat was stifling as the lanky Snyder — too tall to stand up straight in the cramped attic — dodged decades of pigeon droppings as he logged the newspapers.

“A few weeks later he called me and said they’d had a fire,” Snyder recalled. “Everything was destroyed.”

The project identifies more than 9,000 newspaper titles and expanded as Snyder realized that millions of pages stored on microfilm also were at risk. He acquired one publisher’s archive and four commercial microfilm archives. One he rescued from a jobber who had acquired it from the filmer when it went out of business. It was stored in a garage on the High Desert. With film belonging to the California State Library, for which the Center for Bibliographical Studies and Research has taken custody, the total collection is now 100,000 hundred-foot reels, the largest in existence.

Snyder’s team so far has digitized 200,000 newspaper pages in a free, searchable online database. The California Digital Newspaper Collection debuted at a conference in Riverside last month. The collection so far contains more than a half-century of issues of the Daily Alta California and the San Francisco Call as well as runs for the first decade of the last century of the Los Angeles Herald, Amador Ledger and Imperial Valley Press.

The historian also has visited libraries in every major city in South America as he attempts to do with the Catálogo Colectivo de Impresos Latinoamericanos hasta 1851 what has been accomplished with the English Short-Title Catalogue.

Snyder earned his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. He came to UCR in 1986. He has written more than 30 scholarly articles; co-authored a text on English History, “The English Heritage,” and “Cataloging of the Hand Press: A Comparative and Analytical Study of Cataloging Rules and Formats Employed in Europe”; co-edited “The Scottish World” and “The English Short-Title Catalogue: Past, Present, Future”; and edited “The Marlborough-Godolphin Correspondence.”

The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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