Fénelon’s Telemachus, 1728 English edition


 Book collections acted as channels of knowledge and learning, dispensing the classics in Greek and Latin and English translation to an expanding American audience.

Guiding Ideas and Themes

Read this essay on the origins of American libraries and answer the study questions that follow.

Libraries are hardly an American invention, though the particular form of the “subscription library” enjoyed its greatest success in the New World, and today only survives here in any number of variations. Still, the library movement in Colonial America, while having its roots in European Enlightenment ideals, took root here because of a combination of practicality rooted in economic reality and a democratic interest in competing ideas.

First, transport yourself back to Colonial America and think about what life was like in “a world lit only by fire,” before libraries and a great deal else. Imagine that you are a somewhat prosperous tradesman living in Boston in 1730. You are white and of English heritage because that’s where the odds are. You are almost certainly Protestant and Christian. You live on a small spit of land in a large, well-protected harbor, the economic life-blood of the city. Transportation by road is expensive and slow, so access to water is critical for maintaining contact with Europe, your source for critical tools and raw materials for your trade. Boston is a prosperous and growing city, the capital of the Massachusetts Bay colony. It is Britain’s third largest port, has the largest population of any town in North America, and is the most sophisticated spot in the British colonial empire in the New World.

Boston 1800
Boston in 1730

Living in town, you are in a distinct minority—only three percent of the population is urbanized. Boston is about the same size as a regional center in England such as Manchester or Birmingham on the eve of the industrial revolution. The best guess is that Boston has about 16,000 people, of which perhaps as many as 2,000 are black. In contrast, Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia, the most prosperous of the mainland British colonies, has only 2,000 permanent residents. Philadelphia, which is growing rapidly and will eclipse Boston later in the century, has 10,000 people. All of what would eventually become the United States contains about 650,000 people.

Boston was across the Atlantic Ocean from Great Britain but thought of itself as English. London, with as many people as all of North America, was the largest city in Europe and Paris, with over half a million residents, was nearly as big. The largest city in the world at the time was Tokyo, or Edo, as it was known then, with a million people. Still, in the colonial context, Boston was large and thriving, though it was barely big enough to support the dense network of shops and services that make city life so fascinating. As the capital of one of many semi-autonomous colonial territories that stretched from modern-day Canada to the West Indies, it contained most of the civic and governmental functions of the area. It had a governor, a rudimentary assembly and a local currency. Each colony was more or less successful depending upon its particular agricultural and geographical endowments.

You consider yourself British. Most of the people you know were born in England, and often the phrase “the American” is appended to a man’s name to distinguish the son born in the colony from the father. Your intellectual focus is on things English and you may well dream of making your fortune before returning “home” to settle permanently. Some winter days as you struggle up Tremont Street against the wind, you wonder why your family lives in this colony as opposed to Jamaica or Barbados. You probably drink a tot of rum every day made from sugar cane grown in those colonies. Sugar has been the source of fabulous wealth for the settlers in the West Indies—the richest men in the Empire all come from there.

Boston has a lively intellectual atmosphere by virtue of its population density. It has a college nearby and a number of bookshops. We know that booksellers hardly existed anywhere else in the colonies because Benjamin Franklin complained in his Autobiography that there were none to be found outside of Boston in the mid-eighteenth century:

There was not a good Bookseller’s Shop in any of the Colonies to the Southward of Boston. In New York and Philadelphia the Printers were indeed Stationers, they sold only Paper, etc., Almanacks, Ballads, and a few common School Books. Those who lov’d Reading were oblig’d to send for their Books from England.

Religion and books

To consider the issue of books and their availability, first imagine what people were thinking and discussing, and therefore what they were reading, or what they wanted to read if they could get their hands on it. At first glance it is not obvious why there would be any need at all for booksellers, or at any rate those who sold any books other than the Bible. The Bible was central to early American thinking. Any household that owned any books at all owned a Bible, and very often it was the only book in the house. It was read and re-read and discussed continually. Children were often taught to read their letters first with it and only later with primers. But they soon graduated back to the Good Book.

In this way, the early modern period was very different from the Middle Ages. To be sure books were still expensive but they were no longer luxury goods that were out of the bounds of possibility for most. Printing had made this possible, though a book was still, to a great extent, a handcrafted item and the Crown and the Church of England rigorously controlled the publication of the Bible in English. Most of us are familiar with the notion of the “family Bible” and this is a legacy of this period. The Bible was an important “furnishing” for a house, and it would have been an item for which money would be saved over time and, once acquired, would have been carefully preserved. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, you could think of the family Bible as an item similar to a color television in America, circa 1968—highly-desired and expensive, but not out of reach.

The need to read the Bible encouraged by the various brands of Calvinist Protestants drove universal elementary education in the North American colonies, at least those under the sway of religious theocracies. (This was obviously much less true in places such as the West Indies that had been colonized by men more in pursuit of commercial wealth than spiritual enlightenment.) A highly literate population with little to read sets up an uncomfortable dynamic: it allows people to read the Holy Scripture. The Church leadership risked losing its ability to control what people thought. The primary responsibility of the clergy was the interpretation of Scripture, interpretations that differed widely throughout the Colonies. And some groups, notably the Quakers and the other “plain sects” in Pennsylvania, believed that the sanctity and primacy of Scripture outweighed all considerations. They did away with creeds, liturgy and clergy entirely, allowing each individual direct spiritual communication with the Almighty through words.

In New England, the Puritan clergy were keen to maintain their intermediary role: they delivered sermons that demonstrated broad knowledge of the classics, an appetite for current thinking and a profound ability to synthesize information both ancient and modern about the world. Puritan sermons were richly textured, nuanced and firm in establishing the primacy of Biblical authority amid the potential onslaught of new ideas. Not only were they preached from the pulpit but also they were printed and distributed throughout Massachusetts. Such ephemera kept printers busy and, with longer religious tracts, constituted much of the stock of the Boston booksellers.

You had no need for many books if the only book you ever bothered to read was the Bible. This was very often the state of affairs for educated people in early America. But it was by no means the only situation. The clergy very often owned a few books—typically theological commentaries or selections from classical authors. As Enlightenment ideas spread, there came a growing hunger for people wanted to read new ideas or re-read old ones from Antiquity.

Benjamin Franklin and the Library Company

Benjamin Franklin had settled in Philadelphia after leaving Boston. Franklin had formed a small club, the Junto, that met on Friday nights to debate topics of current interest. Here we see the effects of Enlightenment thinking, for rarely did the Junto discuss matters of theology. Instead they worked on questions of science or government or current affairs. Often the members found need to consult books to answer questions and settle arguments and in 1729, Franklin proposed that they pool their books together so that they might be able to consult them more easily. Further, Franklin felt that by making common cause, each could have the resources of a larger library than any one individual possessed. The members approved the idea and they “fill’d one End of the [meeting] Room with such Books as we could best spare.”

The experiment was a failure. Members did not lend their best or even valuable books, so the collection was never as numerous as hoped. Books were lost and damaged by careless members. After a year, the collection was disbanded. Franklin was disappointed but not despondent. In 1731, he drew up a plan for a subscription-based lending library that would eliminate the problems he had encountered while allowing a much larger collection to be accumulated. And so, in July the Library Company of Philadelphia was born.

Franklin’s idea was simple, and became the basis for all the other subscription or “social” libraries that sprouted throughout the colonies and the states over the next century. Each member paid a fixed initial price to join and then an annual subscription fee. The library was run by directors, who purchased books and made them available in a permanent location. Subscribers were entitled to free use of the collection on site and could borrow one or more books to take home, sometimes for a small fee. Fines were levied for overdue books. If one substitutes “property tax” for “subscription fee”, this is essentially the model we have in place for public libraries today. The initial order was for 56 titles in 141 volumes (as was common at the time) and included two titles that the bookseller donated gratis. The books arrived unbound and the Company paid Franklin’s bookbinder to finish them. Altogether, the bill came to just under fifty pounds sterling or about one pound per title, or about six to seven shillings per volume.

This is an enormous sum in today’s terms, perhaps as much as three hundred fifty dollars per title. But it makes sense when we compare the price of other goods at the time. We know that books were expensive, and that standard reference books were scarce and difficult to obtain. Direct price comparisons usually do not make a lot of sense because of changes in productivity and availability of goods and services over time. Still, it is interesting to note that it required between ten and sixteen days of wages for an unskilled laborer to purchase one book. Or, looked at another way, one book cost the same amount as twenty-four bottles of wine. And books were not just expensive: They were difficult to obtain even if one had money. Ordering books from London required the services of several agents and middlemen and was time-consuming—it was not simply a matter of going to the local book shop.

Books in early America, and for that matter, in England were expensive. Very expensive. We know this is true because we have direct evidence in the form of records of the prices of books and also through inference: Large collections of books were considered unusual and the province only of the very wealthiest members of society. Of those collections begun in America before 1700 only the remnants of a handful survive. The cost of Benjamin Franklin’s continuing ventures into librarianship proved to be a stumbling block and tells us several things about the cost of living and the cost of books at the time, so Franklin complained, “few were the Readers at that time in Philadelphia, and the Majority of us so poor, that I was not able with great Industry to find more than Fifty Persons, mostly young Tradesmen, willing to pay down for this purpose Forty shillings each, and Ten Shillings per Annum.” Forty shillings was equal to two pounds, a great deal of money. Franklin found that collecting subscriptions was not always easy. By January of the following year, only twenty-five members had paid up; but by March 1730 over forty persons were full subscribers and the Library Company was able to place its first order for books with an agent in London.

The Library Company proved to be a great success. People saw the mutual advantage it created and clamored to join. A decade after its founding, the collection numbered 375 titles and by Franklin’s estimates was worth upwards of five hundred pounds. In sharp contrast to the college libraries and the libraries in New England, Franklin’s library contained very little religious material. Instead, it more typically mirrored the interests of the Enlightenment: history was the largest portion with about a third of the titles; literature, mostly poetry and plays, about twenty percent, as was science; philosophy was about ten percent, with religion and “other” making up the balance. It was at the Library Company’s rooms that Franklin carried out his first experiments with electricity. Perhaps the key point is that the Library Company built its collection by responding to the wants and needs of its members and readers, rather than by the superimposition of a plan from a higher authority such as a group of professors. Clearly the day was over when people only wanted to read the Bible and theology.

Franklin’s library format was soon imitated throughout the colonies, from Salem to Charleston. The libraries quickly became the place in town where educated people met, and they were most likely to be the people interested in scientific questions, history, politics and the arts. The members viewed the library as vital, living organizations. The Boston Library Society, founded in 1794, acted as a cultural center for leading Bostonians and amassed an impressive collection, as did the Boston Athenæum, organized in 1807, “a Reading Room, a Library, a Museum and a Laboratory” for some of the best minds in high-minded Boston.

Libraries and Neoclassicism

The term “athenæum” is a deliberate reference to Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. Any discussion of libraries would be amiss if we did not mention the role of the classics in early American studies. Although there were periodic calls for more emphasis on English literature in colleges, it is clear that classical studies continued to dominate the curriculum through the eighteenth century. Men who had studied classics in college often continued to read them for pleasure after graduation. More importantly, they were a common currency to which people referred and made allusion constantly. Both sides in the Revolution would appeal to ancient authors to make their case before the public, claiming that Aristotle proved the superiority of the laws of God to the laws of men, while Antigone was presented as evidence for the trouble awaiting those who violated the laws of nature. The Roman republic was held up as an ideal state with supporters quoting Cicero and Tacitus liberally.

In the eighteenth century classical literary style was much praised and emulated and therefore these texts were needed for consultation on a regular basis. Latin rhetoric was studied and imitated and one can hear the cadences of the classics in iconic early American texts such as The Federalist Papers. Such “Golden Latin” has a majesty of style that when properly delivered has a hypnotic effect on an audience. Is it any surprise then that we should learn that when in 1761 James Otis stood up in the Old State House in Boston, and delivered the speech against the Writs of Assistance—the speech that John Adams called the spark of the Revolution—he was best known for a textbook on Latin prose form that he had published the year before?

What then is the legacy of these early American libraries, other than a place where a few people gathered to read books? Franklin ended Part One of his Autobiography with the following statement about the libraries that had sprouted from the original seed of his Library Company:

These Libraries have improv’d the general Conversation of the Americans, made the common Tradesmen & Farmers as intelligent as most Gentlemen from other Countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the Stand so generally made throughout the colonies in Defence of their Privileges.

Here we see encapsulated a view of humanity that would come to be closely associated with the American republic: it is at once optimistic and forward leaning, it is anti-aristocratic, and it is egalitarian.

Study Questions

For Further Study

The libraries and reading collections of the American Founders