American Libraries

As the colonial period progressed, so did the capabilities of the printing press. Books became increasingly more common on both sides of the Atlantic. A literate colonist could choose from titles both religious and secular, including novels, cookbooks, agricultural manuals, and political treatises. By the turn of the seventeenth century, several colonists had begun to create libraries, usually hoping to enrich their communities. These libraries fell into several categories, including personal, social, university, and clerical.

While New England had the highest ratio of libraries per capita, they were found in all thirteen colonies, as well as the Western lands settled by the Spanish. While French Jesuit priests traveled with their own book collections, the largely trade-based form of French colonization was not conducive to the creation of libraries. By the time of the American Revolution, there were 308 known libraries in the colonies.

The foundation of libraries in New England followed patterns similar to those in the other colonies. Initially, they were the result of philanthropic donations. In 1638, John Harvard donated his collection as the foundation of a library for Harvard College. In 1656, John Keayne donated books for a public library in Boston. In the eighteenth century, libraries created by groups of settlers emerged, including the Redwood Library in Rhode Island in the 1740s. Most of these were social or subscription libraries, collections owned by a specific society or association. An individual could buy a share in the society and so gain borrowing privileges. Unlike the libraries donated by one person, these libraries had both a wider selection and a larger patron base.

The most unusual library in New England was one created by John Eliot in the 1660s. As a means of Christianizing the Massachusett tribe, he set up a press and printed religious works in their own language. When the press finished its run in 1730, it had created a collection of twenty-eight volumes. In total, New England founded 120 libraries during the colonial period.

Libraries had the most uneven growth in the Southern colonies of Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas. Coastal planters such as William Byrd II and Robert Carter amassed huge selections of books, comparable to or surpassing the libraries of Northern universities. They also willingly sponsored libraries for their own universities and churches. Thomas Bray, an Anglican clergyman, established as many as thirty-four parish libraries in Maryland. However, these libraries were rarely available to settlers from other social classes. In addition, settlement in the South revolved around scattered plantations and farms. Even if libraries had been open to a wider selection of the population, they would have been difficult to maintain and to use in the backcountry.

In contrast to the South, the Middle Atlantic colonies of New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey had the advantages of several cities and a critical mass of highly literate settlers. In 1731, Benjamin Franklin and some of his friends banded together to create the Library Company of Philadelphia. Their first published catalog in 1754 listed 317 books. Another circulating library was founded in Philadelphia in 1769 by Thomas Bradford.

Benjamin Franklin and friends founded the Library Company of Philadelphia the first subscription library in America in November 1731. It was another year before the books arrived and the library actually opened. The initial membership fee was 40 shillings. (Library of Congress, LC-D41828058) Records indicate that women borrowed nearly as many books from libraries as men. They also indicate that fiction was the most popular choice for borrowers. While Dutch colonists in New York do not appear to have organized formal libraries, their personal collections were extensive. German Mennonites brought similar collections to Pennsylvania. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Middle Atlantic colonies had founded eighty-three libraries.

Libraries in the Spanish colonies, which became Florida, New Mexico, and California, were scarcer than in the Eastern states. They were largely religious and housed in either convents or missions. Of the seven that have been documented, one was in Florida, two in New Mexico, and four in California. A private library also was founded in Florida in the 1680s but did not survive. There also are records of smaller, personal libraries as early as the 1640s. While only four libraries were founded prior to 1691, by the end of the eighteenth century, there were hundreds more. The largest growth took place between 1696 and 1700, with forty-seven founded. The second half of the eighteenth century had a steady increase of approximately fifteen to twenty new libraries created each year, until the outbreak of the American Revolution.

Abigail B. Chandler See also: Arts, Culture, and Intellectual Life (Chronology); Arts, Culture, and Intellectual Life (Essay); Education; Education, Higher; Franklin, Benjamin; Literature; Reading and Literacy. Bibliography Amory, Hugh, and Hall, David D. A History of the Book in America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Gilmore, William J. Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989. McMullen, Haynes. American Libraries Before 1876. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.

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