James J. Periconi began collecting Italian-Language American Imprints starting in about 1999, due to his intellectual curiosity about the book history and culture of Italians in America. In December 2021, Periconi donated the collection to the Queens College Library, Queens College, City University of New York, where it is accessible for research. The collection is managed by the Library's Special Collections and Archives - contact us to make an appointment or for more information. The following text was written by James J. Periconi to provide greater context for the collection and the website.
Why the Collection?
This collection of Italian-language American imprints upends the commonplace beliefs in Italy as well as in the U.S. that (1) all Italian immigrants to America immediately began to learn the English language exclusively, for reading, writing and speaking, (2) “Italian” used by immigrants meant only their particular Italian dialects that were reserved for continued intra-family and intra-community oral communication, and/or (3) Italians never grew in their knowledge of the Italian language once they came to America, remaining nearly illiterate in the standard language of Italy, or some combination of these three.
Through this broad and representative sample of publications and related objects, we gain an understanding of a once thriving Italian-language American book, newspaper and magazine publishing industry in the United States, especially in the 60 years before World War II. During this period, known as “The Great Migration,” the Italian American publishing industry nourished and reflected a vibrant national literary and political culture among a broad spectrum of permanent residents and transient Italians living and working in the United States. The works they published entertained, educated and inflamed an Italian-language audience in that half-century of critical development in the history of Italians in America.
The historical period central to the collection (mostly from late 19th c. to World War II) was a tumultuous one in the U.S., the issues remaining remarkably relevant to the fabric of contemporary American life. A fear of terrorists – in the Italian case, anarchists sworn to overthrow the United States government – and the subsequent deportation of immigrants accused of participating in these activities (a rather small number, actually), parallel events taking place today.
Moreover, the suppression of a free press for political reasons, with right and left fighting each other with words and weapons, define this historical era, and serve as a backdrop for this collection of Italian-language American imprints. The works on view are those of Italian-language writers in America who looked back to the mother country for their language, but also tried, to one degree or another, to come to terms with their American experience.
The impetus behind my collecting these works, beginning at the dawn of the 21st century, as I explain more fully in my Introduction to the Grolier Club Exhibition 2012 on this site, is not difficult to define or describe, as this activity unites two core passions in my life: my deep interest in the history and role of books in culture and in human experience generally, and the perplexity that I share with most Italian American intellectuals I know about the peculiar place that Italians have had and continue to have, on the American scene – both deeply admired (the most of any ethnic group, according to most surveys) but also deeply reviled.
Possible answers to this latter conundrum, I always thought, could come from understanding the book history of Italians in Italian here in the U.S., something that might more clearly (than an examination of the English language book production) reflect the transition from one country’s culture to that of another.
I also thought (and still think) that Italian Americans are beset with an amnesia about their past that is part of the problem. There is some vague awareness of celebrated figures like Sacco and Vanzetti, for example, but there is little sense of the deep, pervasive culture of the left – socialists, syndicalists, and communists, as well as the anarchists of whom Sacco and Vanzetti were exemplars but not the leaders. This pervasive culture among Italians in America in the last years of the 19th and first third or more of the 20th century, is an important part of the story of how Italians became historically regarded. And of course, the United States itself has a tortured history of how it received all immigrant groups.
My hope is that all – Italian and non-Italian alike – will find much here that is new and enlightening.
How to use the website
Omeka does a great job of offering a platform that works for many types of collections, from one of books like this one to one of, say, musical instruments (dulcimers, in fact).
The answer to how to use the website is first to look at the various "browse" possibilities: using the "tags" is key but only for starters.
Some browse possibilities are obvious: if you're primarily interested in books, say, by or about Luigi Galleani, one of the larger-than-life figures in the anarchist community, by using his name as "tag," you'll find not only works of which he's the author - there are about 10 of them in the collection - but books by associates of his, a total of 12 as of this writing. But also go to Items, and input Luigi Galleani - you'll find 69 works in which his name shows up somewhere in the description.
Above all, you will get a much more complete listing of the works in the collection if you go to "Items" and then input a search term.
And the Galleani example presents a bigger point about the difference between "tags" and searching in "items": "fascist" as a search term under Items yields 98 works, but you'll find "fascism" (and not "fascist") as a tag term; and the search term "fascism" in Items yields only 29 works; under Tags, 31 works, with some overlap.
If you're interested in "fascism," too, don't stop after inputting that word alone as a search term in Items, either. Rather, put in "anti-fascist" as search term in Items - you will find 138 works show up; as a Tag, only 31.
Less obvious: if you're doing research on just one decade of radical activity, or just about publications in Chicago or San Francisco, say, rather than those in New York, you can find all such works; the same for smaller cities. Or say, as in the case of one friend of mine, you're interested in fascist and anti-fascist drama of the 1930s, you can quickly see what there may be of interest to you.
What if I'm more interested generally in a genre, rather than a political movement or in just one writer? Maybe I don't know the names of the writers in a category.
This is where "Collections" comes in. Make sure to peruse the dozen or so "collections" to get an overview of the collection. Then, say you're interested in publications outside of New York City and the northeast (the locus of the bulk of the publications), or say you're interested in how Italians learned English (and how Americans learned Italian). Or perhaps you're not interested in the political literature so much as the imaginative literature - fiction, poetry, drama - of the Italians, there's a "collection" for you.
Getting a sense of the various collections is useful for many reasons. Say your particular interest in the political literature is really on fascist and anti-fascist. But "anti-fascist" of course overlaps with anarchist and socialist; still, the left was for a time unified in the fight against fascism. And you can find fascist literature, whether from Italy or the U.S. up against which the anti-fascists fought. So you can look in both fascist and anti-fascist (as a collection), and political subversives (general) as a collection.
Or say you're interested in works published in Italian but that were actually written in French, or English or German, well, the tags enable you to find all those works in the collection.
What else? Magnifying glass
One of the marvelous features is the magnifying glass by which one can inspect very closely the title pages (and others of the text) and cover of each work.
If you click on the image within a given item, it gets somewhat larger. You will also then see a magnifying glass over the image. Click that, and you'll get a crystal clear, many times enlargement so that you can carefully inspect every inch of the title page - particularly useful where there is some or lots of small print on the title page, as sometimes happens - even get a sense of the paper used (of course, not a substitute for actually seeing, feeling, holding the book but still useful).
How to improve the website:
Without a doubt, I have made errors of historical fact, cultural judgment, or simply lacked any information about a particular writer (or particular publisher). Nothing would please me more than to receive a message from you (all messages regarding website content will be passed on to me by Special Collections and Archives staff).
Reader observations have already proved useful: one early viewer of the website already made an important observation - discussed above - of how many more works show up if you use a search term in "Items" rather than relying solely on "Tags" to zero in on a particular writer or subject. And so I get to advise you of that observation.
How can I get to see any of these works?:
The entire collection is available for scholars or other researchers at Queens College, in the Benjamin S. Rosenthal Library’s Special Collections and Archives. For more information or to make an appointment, see https://library.qc.cuny.edu/archives/ or use the contact form. You can browse or search the collection in the OneSearch catalog for CUNY Libraries.