AHA President, 1886–87


Boston Public Library

Excerpt from the American Historical Review 3:2 (January 1898)

Justin Winsor (January 2, 1831–October 22, 1897) died at Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 22, 1897, in the sixty-seventh year of his age. In him American history lost its foremost student, America lost its foremost librarian, and hosts of students, living in all parts of the country, lost a devoted friend whose unfailing knowledge was always at their disposal.

Of the value of Winsor’s contributions to our historical literature and to the cause of historical study in our country, more especially of the study of American history, there can be no question: he made the scientific study of American history possible by making available the rich mines of material; he solved through the aid of cartography many problems which hitherto had been insoluble; he gave a stimulus to a generation of younger men to achieve distinction by scientific work in his chosen field; and he left behind him in his Memorial History, his America, and his Columbus the three best books of their classes yet produced in this country or elsewhere.

The qualities which made Winsor a great editor were largely administrative; they contributed in no small degree to his success in the administration of the two large libraries with which he was associated. He chose his assistants with care, and having once chosen them he seldom interfered in their labors. He also had wonderful aptness for mechanical device and was entirely untrammelled by library traditions and methods, as he came to the Boston Public Library without any training in “library economy.” As a librarian his important work was in liberalizing the relations of libraries to their users and to the reading public. While in Boston he lost no opportunity to make the resources of the Public Library better known; as one means to this end he published his Reader’s Hand-Book of the American Revolution, which remains to this day a model of compact and reasonable bibliographical statement. He came to the Harvard College Library at the moment when new methods of historical teaching were coming into vogue. He entered most heartily into the new movement and converted the library into a laboratory for those departments whose evidence consists mainly in printed matter.

Winsor was a most easy writer; the mechanical operation of writing, which distresses so many persons, was a source of joy to him; he liked to see the words flow from his ready pen. All his notetaking and manuscript writing he did himself with ordinary writing materials. He was also an extremely facile composer of most formidable sentences. His days between breakfast and dark were devoted to library work and note-taking; his evenings to society and proof-reading; his composition he did before breakfast, writing sheet after sheet and pasting notes here and there in the greatest profusion. His manuscript once made up was immediately despatched to the printer without any revision whatever; and, as he also maintained that the truest form of historical expression was the bare statement of fact in bald language, the inevitable result of this headlong haste was that he frequently made statements which most men would have sent out under some less uncompromising form of words. Frequently the phrases chosen were not the most fortunate that could have been selected. Errors, too, in small matters, as names and dates, occurred and were perpetuated in the printed page ; for, relying on his wonderful memory, he did not systematically verify every title and date in proof.

Winsor was not only indefatigable in collecting information and in disseminating knowledge through the medium of printed books ; he opened his ample stores for the benefit of all persons who wished to draw from them. Although an exceedingly industrious man he was a most sociable man; he liked to see other persons and to talk with them or, when this was not possible, to correspond with them. While at the Boston Public Library he trained himself to interruption, stopping his pen in the middle of a sentence instead of at the end. In this way he was able to take up the unfinished thought at once upon the departure of his visitor. It happened, therefore, that one no sooner appeared within the door of his room than his pen was laid aside and the inquisitor, whom many men would have dreaded, greeted with a cheery “Sit down.” Whatever Winsor knew of American bibliography or of library methods was at his questioner’s disposal; if the desired information could not be given at the library he looked up the point at his house, where his memoranda were kept, and at once sent a note to his questioner. Unknown inquirers from a distance received the same cordial attention and an enormous amount of time was devoted to answering them. He also had the reputation of a wide acquaintance with men and of being an excellent judge of them. His advice was constantly sought in the selection of librarians, authors, editors, secretaries, and teachers, and it was always cheerfully given; the number of persons who owe their present positions in part at least to his friendly counsel is very large.

As an historical editor, as a librarian, as a master of American historical cartography, as a student of the bibliography of American history, Justin Winsor was without a peer. Seldom has the world seen a firmer friend or a more generous opponent. His death leaves us without a person to turn to in one of the most important departments of our work.—Edward Channing



A bibliography of the original quartos and folios of Shakespeare with particular reference to copies in America. By Justin Winsor. With sixty-eight heliotype facsimiles. Boston, J. R. Osgood and Company, 1876.

The reader’s handbook of the American Revolution, 1761-1783. By Justin Winsor. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, c1879.

The earliest printed sources of New England history, 1602-1629. By Justin Winsor. Cambridge, Mass.: J. Wilson and Son, 1894 (Cambridge: University Press)

Christopher Columbus and how he received and imparted the spirit of discovery. By Justin Winsor. 5th ed., rev. Boston and New York, Houghton, Mifflin and company, 1892.

The results in Europe of Cartier’s explorations, 1542-1603. By Justin Winsor. Cambridge: John Wilson and Son, University Press, 1892.

Cartier to Frontenac; geographical discovery in the interior of North America in its historical relations, 1534-1700. New York, Cooper Square Publishers, 1970.

The Mississippi basin: The struggle in America between England and France 1697-1763, with full cartographical illustrations from contemporary sources. By Justin Winsor. Boston, New York, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1895; Reprint, Freeport, N.Y., Books for Libraries Press, 1972.

The literature of witchcraft in New England. By Justin Winsor. Worcester, Mass.: Printed by C. Hamilton, 1896.

The New-England Indians: a bibliographical survey, 1630-1700. By Justin Winsor. Cambridge, J. Wilson and son, 1895; Reprint, Montreal: Osiris Publications, 1973.

Narrative and critical history of America . Edited by Justin Winsor. New York : AMS Press, 1967.

The American Revolution; a narrative, critical and bibliographical history. Edited by Justin Winsor. Compiled by Jack Brussel, Narrative and critical history of America. Selections. New York, Sons of Liberty Publications, 1972.

The Kohl collection of maps relating to America. By Justin Winsor. Cambridge, Library of Harvard University, 1886; Reprint, Mansfield Centre, Conn.: Martino Pub., 2002.

The westward movement; the Colonies and the Republic west of the Alleghanies, 1763-1798, with full cartographical illustrations from contemporary sources. New York, B. Franklin, 1968.