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Modern Libraries: 1700-1724 CE

Let's examine copyright laws, book clubs, book societies, subscription libraries, and academic libraries.

As libraries and publishing expanded into the colonies, questions began to arise about the legal rights of publishers and authors. In 1662 the Licensing of the Press Act in Britain was the first step toward regulating the copying of books.

In 1710, the Statute of Anne was enacted in Great Britain. The first copyright statute in the world, the act granted book publishers 14 years of legal protection including books already in print. After 14 years, the copyright term could be renewed if the author was alive. The act provided provisions for copyright infringement that were enforced by the Stationers' Company, a guild of printers.

In the United States in 1787, the Copyright Clause of the United States Constitution authorized copyright legislation. Like Great Britain, the original length was 14 years.

During the late 17th and early 18th century, members of the middle and upper class began to form book clubs, society libraries, subscription libraries. Known as social libraries or subscription libraries, many of these began as small, private book clubs.

The Rise of Subscription Libraries

LAbbe Jean Jacques Huber Iisant by Maurice Quentin de La Tour Wikimedia Commons PDSubscription Libraries are financed with private funds through membership fees or endowments. They may be restricted to members, but may also allow non-members. While some of the books were donated, others were purchased through funds generated by membership fees, library shares, or endowments.

The painting on the right shows L'Abbé Jean-Jacques Huber lisant reading in the 1700s.

The libraries were restricted to members, but sometimes allowed non-members such as students to use the collections. Because individuals were sometimes required to invest in shares of the library, the term proprietary library was sometimes used. These shares could be transferred as needed.

In some cases, subscribers were viewed as stockholders who helped make decisions about staffing, acquisition, and dues.

These collections often focused on nonfiction works such as history, philosophy, travel, or theology rather than fiction. The books selected were chosen based on the interests for the shareholders. The governance generally consisted of a committee who also select a librarian to manage the collection. In most cases, the librarian handled circulation, but the committee selected the books.

Learn more about Subscription Libraries at Wikipedia.

Skim Proprietary and Subscription Libraries by Charles Knowles Bolton, 1912.

Subscription Libraries in the United States

Four subscription libraries emerged in the early 1700s in Colonial America.

Library Company of Philadelphia
Philadelphia, PA, USA

Benjamin Franklin founded the first subscription library in North America in 1731 as an extension of a discussion group called Junto. Known as the Library Company of Philadelphia, the group found that by pooling their resources, they were able to build a library.

The group found that during discussions they would often be lacking a key piece of factual information that would be easy to identify in a book. Without that evidence the debate could not be concluded. What they needed was a library.

The Library Company's historian stated "the contribution of each created the book capital of all." Fifty subscribers invested 40 shilling each and the promise to pay ten shillings per year thereafter. The early collection included a third historical works and travel, fifth literature, a fifth science, and only a tenth theology. James Logan was sent to London to acquire books. Additional revenue came from opening their own book press that included authors such as John Locke.

Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences by Samual JenningsAmerica's first librarian was Louis Timothee, a prominent Colonial American printer. Working part-time beginning in 1732, he was paid three pounds sterling every trimester and worked every Wednesday from two to three o'clock and every Saturday from ten to four.

The Library Company also became the repository for curiosities such as fossils, minerals, natural history specimens, rare coins, and later the mummified hand of an Egyptian princess. Franklin and others performed their first experiments with electricity there in the 1740s.

In addition to books, the a microscope and telescope were frequently borrowed from the collection. In 1769, Sarah Wistar became the first woman to receive a library share.

Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences by Samuel Jennings (above left) was commissioned for the new library building in 1792.

The Library Company served as the Library of Congress until the national capital was established in 1800. The image below shows the Library Company of Philadelphia around 1800.

Library of Philadelphia Wikimedia Commons PD

Learn more about the Library Company.

Skim the Library Company of Philadelphia: A Catalogue from 1807 for a sense of the collection. It also includes the charter, laws, and regulations.

Redwood Library and Athenaeum
Newport, Rhode Island, USA

Established in 1747, the Redwood Library and Athenaeum is the oldest lending library still operating in its original building in the United States. Abraham Redwood donated 500 pounds to start the library. The founding principle was "having nothing in view but the good of mankind".

This subscription library was constructed in 1750 in the Georgian-Palladian style.

During the American Revolution, occupying troops looted the library, but many of the books were returned.

An early librarian, Ezra Stiles (below right) went on to become co-founder of Brown University and President of Yale University. The library is currently a membership library but is open to the public (below left).

Redwood Library Swampyank CC-A-SA Wikimedia CommonsEzra Stiles Wikimedia Commons PD

Learn more at Redwood Library.

Charleston Library Society
Charleston, South Carolina , USA

The Charleston Library Society is the third oldest subscription library in the United States. Founded in 1748 by a group of seventeen gentlemen, each man contributed ten pounds sterling. One of the founders was Peter Timothy, the son of the first librarian of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

The bulk of the collection was moved to South Carolina College for safekeeping during the Civil War, however a small portion was destroyed. Below is the Charleston Courthouse Building currently in use.

Charleston Co Courthouse LOC SC0126

Learn more at Charleston Library Society.

New York Society Library
New York City, New York, USA

The oldest cultural institution in New York City, the New York Society Library (NYSL) was founded in 1754 as a subscription library in the former City Hall building.

The image below shows the Article of the Subscription Roll of the New York Library. Read the entire articles. One hundred eighteen people were listed as paid when the library was established.

Articles of the library Putnam 1908

Most of the initial collection can from England on a ship. A catalog was immediately created listing between 650-700 titles. In June of 1955, the rates were established for checking out a book for the period of a month. According to Keep (1908), rules were drawn up that were to be "strictly observed by the librarians."

Rules Keep 1908

BookplateA board of trustees was established. Like many boards, there was controversy regarding the composition.

In 1757 funding was set aside for the position of "Office of a Library Keeper."

The first bookplate was established in 1758.

The library was badly damaged during the Revolutionary War when it was occupied by the British Army who used book paper for wadding their muskets.

When New York was the capitol of the United States, the library was used as the first Library of Congress.

Until the creation of the New York Public Library in 1895, it functioned as the city library.

To learn more, read History of the New York Society Library by Austin Baxter Keep (1908) at Archive.org.

Dig DeeperDig Deeper
Read Glynn, Tom (2005). The New York Society Library: books, authority, and public in colonial and early republican New York. Libraries & Culture, 40(4), 493-529.

Subscription Libraries in Europe

While free public libraries continued to have a difficult time finding donations, some libraries were slowly eliminating chains and opening access. Libraries like Chetham's, Innerpefrray and Thomas Plume's Library showed the success of membership libraries.

Leadhills Miners' Library

The Leadhills Miners' Library, also known as the Allan Ramsay Library or the Leadhills Reading Society was established in 1741 and claims to be the oldest subscription library in Britain. The founders were 23 miners along with a minister and schoolmaster. The early books were religious. The minutes of the organization show that money was spent for repairs and rebinding indicating use of the collection.

This library reflects that reading was an interest to working people as well as the affluent classes, religious leaders, and scholars.

Leeds Library
Leeds, England

Leeds Geograph Betty Longbottom CC-SA 2.0Founded in 1768, the Leeds Library was established following the placement of an advertisement in the newspaper. Located above a bookseller's shop, the library is the oldest surviving subscription library and continues to operate for the over 800 annual subscription members.

The library was used for "information, education, and entertainment as well as bringing like-minded people together". According to the Leeds Library website, "books were being published in larger and larger numbers and their middle class readers had more leisure time to read them. But books were also expensive and there were no public libraries.

The aim of the Leeds Library and other subscription libraries was to acquire new books that their members wished to read and to collect them perpetually so that their collections would increase in size and value. The vast majority of the books acquired were available for loan and on open shelves from which the members could select them. Printed catalogues were distributed regularly to help with book selection."

Learn more at The Leeds Library.

Linen Hall Library
Belfast, Northern Ireland

Linden Ardfern Wikimedia Commons CC-A-SAThe Linen Hall Library in Belfast, Northern Ireland is the oldest library in Belfast and last subscription library in Northern Ireland. Founded in 1788 by a group of artisans known as the Belfast Reading Society, it became the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge in 1792.

A resolution passed in 1795 stated that "the object of this Society is the collection of an extensive Library, philosophical apparatus and such products of nature and art as tend to improve the mind and excite a spirit of general enquiry." In the 1800s, the society became more conservative attempting to exclude students.

Like many subscription library of the time, they debated whether to include fiction in the collection. According to the Linen Hall Library website, "in seeking to build up its collections the Society took a particular interest in such materials as may render them more intimately acquainted with the natural, civil, commercial and ecclesiastical history of their own country (i.e. Ireland ), an impetus that remains to this day".

Learn more at Linden Hall Library.

Academic Libraries

In the 17th and 18th centuries, academic libraries continued to evolve in Europe and began to emerge in Colonial America.

Goettingen University Library
Gottingen, Germany

The library was founded in 1294 at a former Pauline monastery. The library was founded in 1734. The university was built in 1737 on the monastery foundation and housed a collection of 12,000 volumes mostly from the private library of Joachim Hinrich von Bulow. The collection was build to include materials of national and international importance. The current collection contains over six million items. The Digital Library is well-known.

The library director in 1810, Christian Gottlob Heyne (1763-1812) wrote the principles of acquisition stating

"continuous acquisition of that which, bey of increasingly advanced scientific culture, is necessary in the daily section of the new growth of native and foreign literature for a library, which for a scientific plan, not Liebhaberey individual subjects, not for love of splendor, is not set up according to the appearance of the externals, but by embracing the epitome and the most important scriptures of all times and peoples in all the sciences, in local and foreign literature". Heyne developed a relationships with booksellers around the world.

Learn more at Goettingen University Library.

Harvard University Library
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

In 1638, John Harvard bequeathed 400 books to begin the Harvard University Library system. Over the next century the collection grew into the largest library in colonial America. The first catalogue was printed in 1676. In 1764, a fire destroyed much of the collection. Donations helped to rebuild the collection. In particular, Thomas Hollis V shipped thousands of books from England and provided the first endowed book fund. Harvard's online catalog was named in his honor two centuries later, Harvard On-Line Information System and some of his book donations can be found in the Google Books Library Project.

In the mid 1800s, the library began a shift in organization and access. According to Potter (1903), the 41,000 volume library was moved to Gore Hall in 1837. During the 1840s, the catalogue was placed on cards. The first cards were made by pasting the titles cut from the printed catalogue. Later, the titles were written directly onto the cards. A system of reserved books was established in 1876.

Electric lights were introduced in 1885 allowing expanded evening hours and additional access to the collection.

Yale in 1786 WikimediaSkim the Charging Records of the Harvard College Library from 1766 from Harvard University.

Yale University Library
New Haven, Connecticut

The General Court of the Colony of Connecticut passed an act to erect a collegiate school in 1701. A group of ten Congregationalist ministers pooled their books to create the first library. In 1718 Elihu Yale donated 417 books to the library.

Yale was impacted by the intellectual movements of the time period. As such, two tracks emerged, those interested in theology and divinity and those attracted to the sciences.

The image on the right shows Yale in 1786.


Bolton, Charles Knowles (1912). Proprietary and Subscription Libraries. American Library Association. Avaialble: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:FHCL:2558652?n=2

Casson, Lionel (2001). Libraries of the Ancient World. Yale University.

Clark, John Willis (1901). The Care of Books. Cambridge University Press Warehouse. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=uvQ_AAAAYAAJ

Coleman, Sterling Joseph (2008). Empire of the Mind: Subscription Libraries, Literacy, and Acculturation in the Colonies of the British Empire. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=fP-9bKK7yxkC&pg=PA17

Edwards, Edward (1859). Memoirs of Libraries. Trubner & Co. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=FgmsfVR5UFkC and http://books.google.com/books?id=l60FAAAAMAAJ

Olle, James G. (1971). Library History: An Examination Guidebook. Second Edition. Archon Books & Clive Bingley.

Spence, Jonathan. Treason by the Book.

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