Appleton P. C. Griffin: Bibliographer Extraordinaire and An Editor’s Friend

TOPICS: Bibliography, Documentary Editing, Short Biography

by William M. Ferraro, Senior Associate Editor
January 24, 2020

In a past blog post titled “Interrogating the Text; How to Annotate a George Washington Document,” I observed that a principal feature of documentary editing is using bibliography to contextualize texts. Bringing order to sources is the essence of bibliography, and it cannot be stressed enough how much editors appreciate any person who achieves that end. In the world of documentary scholarship on George Washington, a genuine star in this regard is Appleton Prentiss Clark Griffin (1852‒1926), who compiled A Catalogue of the Washington Collection in the Boston Athenæum (Cambridge, Mass., 1897). The bland title does not do justice to its usefulness as a comprehensive source on the books Washington owned and the evidence of how he read or handled the various titles.

Title page of Griffin’s A Catalogue of the Washington Collection in the Boston Athenæum.

Griffin, born in Wilton, N.H., received his elementary education in the public schools of Medford, Mass., and obtained his subsequent education from private tutors. He never attended college but began working at age thirteen in the Boston Public Library. Griffin remained at the library until 1894 when the trustees dismissed him from his role as keeper of books during a controversial administrative reorganization.1

Griffin’s departure enabled him to devote more time to the bibliographic work that had been his passion for some years. He already had produced compilations on topics as diverse as the Renaissance and the discovery of the Mississippi River by 1895, when he began what would become a two-year effort of poring over the Boston Athenæum’s unparalleled collection of books previously owned by Washington and preparing a bibliography.2 While the heart of his book is a detailed commentary on the items once in Washington’s possession, Griffin expanded his study to 475 pages by including sections on other books from Mount Vernon, the writings of Washington, and other Washingtoniana. Each part has value for editors and scholars.3 An appendix by Boston Athenæum librarian William Coolidge Lane—which includes an inventory of Washington’s books created by the appraisers of his estate and notes on the history of those Washington-owned books not in the Athenæum collection—stretches the page count to 566 pages.

Griffin ended his career at the Library of Congress, where he received an appointment as assistant librarian on Aug. 27, 1897. He shifted to the position of chief bibliographer in the Division of Bibliography in 1900 and astonishingly produced more than fifty bibliographies over the next eight years. Griffin filled the vacancy of chief assistant librarian in 1908 following the incumbent’s death. He held that important position until his own death on April 16, 1926. Griffin, who married in 1878 and fathered five children, was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Among the numerous honors and recognitions he accrued over his lifetime was membership in Phi Beta Kappa at Brown University in 1909.4

Griffin’s bibliographic scholarship on Washington’s books assisted the editors of a recent volume in the Presidential Series. British agriculturist John Sinclair wrote Washington from London on May 30, 1796, regarding “an additional Appendix to the Chapter on Manures, on which we should be glad to be favored with the Remarks of the intelligent Farmer” and “Queries respecting Live Stock.” Sinclair’s letter indicated that he enclosed copies of these works. It was easy to ascertain the full titles and Washington’s receipt of them because the texts appear in Griffin’s Catalogue of the Washington Collection on pages 89 and 90.5 It is necessary to add that the use of this bibliography is greatly facilitated by Franklin Osborne Poole’s index, which arranges authors mentioned in alphabetical order.6

Modern documentary scholars benefit enormously from their predecessors. As the field transitions more and more to the electronic realm, it is vital that the vast knowledge of those individuals who knew only books or paper sources is not forgotten. Appleton P. C. Griffin stands tall among those individuals.


For more examples of individuals whose work is of significance to editors, see William M. Ferraro’s blog series Standing on the Shoulders of Giants.


  1. John D. Haskell, Jr., “Griffin, Appleton Prentiss Clark (1852‒1926),” in Bohdan S. Wynar, ed., Dictionary of American Library Biography (Littleton, Colo., 1978), 218‒20.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Griffin’s Catalogue of the Washington Collection contributed significantly to Kevin J. Hayes, George Washington: A Life in Books (New York, 2017), winner of the George Washington Book Prize in 2018.
  4. Haskell, Jr., “Griffin,” 219.
  5. David R. Hoth and William M. Ferraro, eds., The Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series (Charlottesville, Va., 2019), 20:213‒16.
  6. Franklin Osborne Poole, A Catalogue of the Washington Collection in the Boston Athenæum . . . Index (Boston Athenæm, 1900).