Publishers' Weekly began publication in New York City in 1872. As it still does today, PW carried news of interest to the trade, advertising, and descriptions of new publications.
It's editor, Frederick Leypoldt intended, in part, to continue the work of Orville A. Roorbach whose Bibliotheca Americana cataloged American imprints from 1820 to 1861; James Kelly's The American Catalogue of Books (Original and Reprints) Published in the United States from Jan. 1861, to Jan. , The American Catalogue of Books for 1871 [covering 1870]; and The American Catalogue [for 1871]. Leypoldt also continued the American Catalogue for 1876-1910 in eleven volumes published between 1876 and 1910.
Leypoldt started PTLA in 1873 as the basis on which a full catalog of United States imprints might eventually be founded. The titlepage of the second (1874) volume reads in full: The Publishers' Trade List Annual, Embracing the Full Trade Lists of American Publishers, together with an Alphabetical Reference List of Books recorded in the Publisher's Weekly from January 16, 1873, to June 27, 1874, and the American Educational Catalogue for 1874. With Alphabetical Indexes of Firms and Trade Specialities. New York: Office of the Publishers' Weekly, 37 Park Row. October, 1874.
Leypoldt's idea was straight-forward: ask every American publisher to submit by a specified date a specified number of copies of a catalog of their publications. Collate the resulting catalogs, provide some indices and other preliminary matter, and bind the result into a volume that could be distributed back to booksellers, libraries, and other potential book buyers and distributors. The call for submissions must have included general specifications on size: the volumes are relatively uniform, page size about 8 by 11 inches, but grow thicker with each passing year as both individual catalogs and the number of publishers submitting them grow larger. By 1900, the volumes are nearly a foot thick and unwieldy in the extreme. By the 1970s, the title cam in three or more volumes each year.
Content varied. Some catalogs were little more than lists with price and order information. Others offer substantial descriptions of individual books and series. Relatively few were illustrated in the 1870s; by the late 1880s, however, more and more were illustrated with line cuts and half-tones, often of bindings, later dustjackets, but also of authors, factory buildings, and manufacturing facilities. It is this fact which is making it possible to identify and date a substantial percentage of the many editions of Lucile which were published between 1885 and 1920. Paper quality varies but is, in general, not very good, and many runs are missing pages and portions of pages.
Since relatively few publisher's catalogs survive, and those which do are widely scattered, PTLA is an invaluable resource for research of late 19th century imprints. During the 1970s, the Meckler Corporation published a microfiche edition of PTLA, 1903-1981. In 1994, the Guide to Microforms in Print priced this at $15,000. I have not been able to discover why the 1873-1902 volumes, highly valuable for all sorts of studies, were not selected for filming, and I do not know whose run was sacrificed for filming. The microfiche set lacks at least some pages. Meckler has since moved on to electronic products, and I do not know the current location of the master microfilm.
An informal survey in 1995-1997 conducted via the Exlibris listserv suggested that relatively complete runs for the pre-1920 volumes are far from common. Full or nearly full runs of PTLA have so far been identified at the American Antiquarian Society; The British Library; Brown University; University of California, Los Angeles; Cornell University; Emory University; University of Illinois; University of Indiana; University of Michigan; University of Minnesota; the Newberry Library; The New York State Library, and Rutgers. The University of California, Berkeley and Stanford, I'm told, divide a fairly long run. In the 1960s, the University of Iowa sent its run to the Center for Research Libraries, as did, one guesses, a number of other libraries.
A second part of Leypoldt's idea was to index each year's PTLA to provide access to individual authors and titles. Although the H.W. Wilson Company began the Cummulative Book Index in 1898 and produced volumes of The United States Catalog in 1899, 1902, 1912, and 1928, Leypoldt's ambition was not realized until 1948 when PTLA became the source document for Books in Print. Just after 2000, PTLA was discontinued and Books in Print was absorbed into an electronic database, Bowker's Global Books in Print.
See also my index to the contents of PTLA 1873-1947.
Last revised: 14 October 2010