Here in Archives and Special Collections, we tend to talk a lot about the material history of our books. Often the idea is a new one to students who are used to thinking of books as texts not objects.
These days, my favorite book-as-object topic is early library marks. We have many books with bookplates from personal and institutional libraries – which is not surprising since the wealthy and educated were for many centuries the primary consumers of books. It isn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that literacy and books become more available to the middle and lower classes and we begin to see ownership marks from social, circulating and public libraries. It is these questions of who had access to books, which books, under what terms, and in service of what guiding ideology, that I find most fascinating.
There is some agreement that the first proto-public library in the United States was Benjamin Franklin’s Library Company of Philadelphia begun in 1731. This library, and the many others that followed it’s lead, worked on a membership or subscription model. Members would purchase a share of the library, or pay a regular fee and would in exchange have the privilege of borrowing books under the terms set out, although the details varied greatly.
While we do have a representative from the elite Boston Library Society, I find these interesting because most of them are from small western Massachusetts towns. They are a window into what local people may have been reading (albeit, local people with enough money to pay the subscription fee). Particularly intriguing are the 45 plus books in our collection that were at one point a part of the Shutesbury Library – and that the library was seemingly open only four times a year! Most of the books instruct borrowers to return the books on the first Monday of March, June, September or December.
While social libraries tended to be founded and patronized by upstanding citizens in a spirit of mutual improvement (generally reflected by the religious, or a least serious, nature of the books), circulating libraries were more typically business ventures. They were often owned and run by a bookseller or individual who charged by the book, sometimes with options to purchase, and often carried more popular and frivolous books like (heaven forbid!) novels.
If social libraries were a self-improvement project, and circulating libraries a capitalist one, then there were also a number of libraries that would fall under the “improvement of others” category, others in this case including both race and class.
Various libraries were set up by factory owners or other beneficent donors for lower class workers. The idea being that education would raise the workers out of the habits of poverty (aka ethnic traditions) make upstanding, clean-living citizens of them.
On the other side of the ideological spectrum was the library set up by the Free Congregational Society of Florence, Mass. The Society was founded in 1863 in the pursuit of “good morals, general education and liberal religious sentiments” and made explicit in its founding documents that it would not discriminate on the basis of “sex, or color or nationality”. While the library began with a membership or fee requirement, it was waived and became free and open to all (as you can see in the penciled note above). In this case, education for all is still the goal, but with a very different flavor to it.
All these trends in libraries (along with academic libraries), combined to give life to the public library. Public libraries took off in the late 19th century on the wings of cheaper books and a sentiment that free education was key to a good and productive citizenry. And we, the book loving public, haven’t looked back since.