Celebrating the Digitization of McGill Library’s Chapbook Collection: An exhibition of British and American chapbooks


Celebrating the Digitization of McGill Library’s Chapbook Collection: An exhibition of British and American chapbooks

This exhibition celebrates the creation of the Library’s newest digital collection. The McGill Library’s Chapbook Collection contains over 900 English-language chapbooks published in England, Scotland, Ireland and the northeastern United States.  Through a generous donation from the Harold Crabtree Foundation digital facsimiles have been prepared and the entire collection is now online.

The majority of the chapbooks in the McGill Library’s Chapbook Collection were published in the early 19th century.  They contain stories based upon medieval romance, English legends and folklore, or abridged from popular literature for adults.   Children’s chapbooks of popular nursery rhymes, fairy tales and books of instruction are also part of the chapbook collection courtesy of The Sheila R. Bourke Collection of Children’s Literature, a major research collection in children’s literature which is held by the Library.

Chapbooks are small in size and number of pages. They were printed on cheap paper and their leaves stitched together, sometimes including an illustrated paper cover. Often undated, without authors, chapbooks are usually identified by their printer and often contain numerous woodcut illustrations. They were carried by peddlers known as “chapmen” and were sold for pennies or less to the rural population on their trade routes.  Scholars link the proliferation of this “cheap print “ to  increased literacy rates and though first-hand accounts of readership are rare, chapbooks are considered a significant aspect of the printed popular literature of the time.

These selections from McGill Library’s Chapbook Collection illustrate a range of subject genres, printers and publishing locations on both sides of the Atlantic.  Included are evangelical publications such as Hannah More’s Cheap Repository Tracts and the Religious Tract Society who modeled their publications on the chapbook format in an attempted to reform the lower classes.

The McGill Library’s Chapbook Collection can be viewed online from the McGill Library website at http://digital.library.mcgill.ca/chapbooks.

Items displayed in this exhibition have been selected from McGill’s Rare Books and Special Collections including The Sheila R. Bourke Collection of Children’s Literature and the Children’s Collection. 

This exhibition was prepared by Sharon Rankin, Liaison Librarian. The Library would like to thank Jason Grand, McGill M.A. English 2014 for the excerpts of his texts used in this exhibition.

Free admission. Accessible during opening hours.

McLennan Library Building Lobby : 3459 rue McTavish. Montreal, Quebec , H3A 0C9


McGill Library’s Chapbook Collection – Website Launched!

On August 15, 2013 the website was launched!

Through a generous donation from the Harold Crabtree Foundation, digital facsimiles of the  Rare Books and Special Collections chapbook collection have been prepared and a virtual collection created.

beechapbookThe McGill Library’s Chapbook Collection is organized by subject categories which can be browsed. The entire work can be read in PDF format or online, using the page turning functionality of the Internet Archive.

Visit the collection at:


TEI details

The McGill Library’s Chapbook Collection project is also a text encoding project.

Rare Books and Special Collections is creating a TEI XML file for each of the chapbooks using TEI P5:Guidelines for Electronic Text Encoding and Interchange by the TEI Consortium. Level 4 coding from Best Practices for TEI in Libraries is the goal of the project, to enable future functionality using the encoded TEI text file.

The project is seeking partnerships with scholars to enhance the level of encoding and extend the use of these files in the support of digital humanities research.

What is a chapbook?

For purposes of this digitization project, a definition of a chapbook is required.

“ a paper-covered booklet costing a penny or so, as sold by travelling hawkers (chapmen) who included bundles of them with the buttons, threads, laces and so on which they carried from village to village.  Chapbooks were usually about 6 in. by 4 in., had up to twenty-four pages illustrated with crude but lively woodcuts, and had a decorated cover title.” [1]

Glaister continues his definition and provides a timeframe for these publications.  London printers began to print chapbooks at the end of the 17th century and they continued to be published until the 1880’s, when the Catnach Press went out of business[2].  Carter states in his definition “not in current use since about 1830”.[3] In America, the chapbook era was from about 1725 to 1825, however in the McGill collections we have chapbooks printed later than 1825.

Chapbooks are also called penny histories. They were originally created as popular literature for adults, based upon medieval romance, English legends and folklore. Children’s chapbooks were later produced with popular nursery rhymes and fairy tales.

“The distinction between a chapbook and a small paper-covered child’s book is extremely fine and such were the physical characteristics and contents of tiny, ephemeral books designed for children that it seems reasonable to regard them as chapbooks.” [4]

Checklist for defining a chapbook:

–          If the work has a cover, it will be made of paper

–          Small in size – up to 15 cm x 10 cm

–          8, 16, or 24 pages

–          Up to 46 pages can be included if meets all of the other considerations

–          Unbound, leaves are stitched (sewn)

–          Illustrated by woodcuts (sometimes tinted/coloured)

–          Imprint between 1690 and 1880

–          Often undated

–          Author usually un-named

–          Include religious tracts (author often named on these publications)

[1] Glaister, G. A. Glaister’s Glossary of the Book. 2nd ed. London: George Alen & Unwin, 1979, p. 92.

[2] Neuburg, V. E. The Penny Histories. London: Oxford University Press, 1968, p. 75.

[3] Carter, J. ABC for book Collectors. London: Granada, 1980, p. 57.

[4] Ibid, p. 53.