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Modern Libraries: 1775-1799 CE

Let's examine issues related to human rights, intellectual freedom, and revolution.

Although the discussion of human rights was fashionable in literary circles in the late 1700s, implementing these ideals was more difficult.

In 1791, Thomas Paine (1737-1809) published The Rights of Man (below left). This popular text defended the values of the American Revolution including the human rights of life, liberty, and free speech, as well as civil rights related to security and protection. He outlined how a government could provide for the social welfare of the people and stressed the importance of literacy and education for all. The book sold tens of thousands of copies.

Rights of Man Thomas Paine Wikimedia Commons PDVindication Wikimedia Commons PD

At the same time, British society was debating the position of women in society. In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman advocating for women's rights. Her text stressed that women could contribute to society if given the freedom to obtain an education. The text was well-received and immediately reprinted. Wollstonecraft's daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (better known as Mary Shelley) became a well-known writer herself.

Libraries, Reading, and Women

Although circulating libraries were open to woman, many subscription libraries were for men only. By the late 1700s, women's societies began seeing the advantage of their own collections. By the early 1800s, women's group would become popular throughout the United States and particularly in the midwest.

The Female Library
Candia, New Hampshire

Established around 1795, a group of women from the the Congregational society formed an association. They purchases a collection of primarily religious books for their library (Moore, 1893).

The Sherborn Female Reading Society
Sherborn, Massachusetts

Established in 1816, the Sherborn Female Reading Society "desiring to promote their own mutual improvement, and to advance the interests of Christ's Kingdom - associate themselves together under the name of The Female Reading and Benevolent Society."

Skim the minutes of the Female Reading and Benevolent Society from 1826-1989 at Harvard University Library.

State Libraries

State libraries emerged in the late 18th century as the country was formed. While some collections began in the early 18th century, state libraries emerged in the 1790s.

Dig DeeperDig Deeper
Read Shaw, John T. (2013). The origins of a state library: New Jersey, 1704-1824. Information & Culture, 48(1), 8-25.

Libraries and the American Revolution

The American Revolution brought about changes in literacy and libraries in the United States.

"In the 1780s and 1790s, American Libraries faced a new social and political climate. During the years of the Confederation and the early Republic, Americans assigned a new value to print culture and to institutions that could provide people with access to those resources. Over the end of the century, more Americans in total achieved literacy than ever before; in the northern states in particular, the free population had achieved near-universal literacy by the turn of the 1800s. The culture surrounding that literacy emphasized it as a necessary first step toward an educated citizenry, in whose hands the fate of the new Republic rested. These changed placed libraries in a position of importance: in service to the virtue of the Republic, they could help bridge the gap between the people and the print world. " (Hayes, 2008, 361)

Federak regulations adopted in the 1780s the creation of various government agencies who would all maintain collections of records and public documents. In 1789, the first proposal regarding the Library of Congress were introduced. Until this time, Congress made use of the Library Company of Philadelphia and the New York Society Library for their library needs. Moving the capitol to Washington D.C. expediated the process of establishing a library and in 1802, the location, use, and funding were established.

Libraries and the French Revolution

The French Cataloging Code of 1791 provided direction for librarians cataloging the contents of collections seized during the French Revolution. Cards were used to record information about each item confiscated. This activity could be considered the creation of the first card catalog.

Libraries and Intellectual Freedom

From concerns about fiction corrupting the minds of young people to censorship and literary inquisitions, the 18th century was a time when intellectual freedom was being actively challenged. In earlier times, political, academic, and religious leaders controlled access to information. Most citizens were unaware of what they were missing. However with the introduction of free public libraries and the growing interest in reading, the public became more aware of the power of information.

Library selection policies have been in use throughout history. Development and implementation of these policies have a direct impact on the content of the collection in both positive and negative ways. The selection criteria of Emperor Quianlong was intended to control intellectual property and restrict access to information.

Siku Quanshu Libraries

Qianlong by Giuseppe Castilone PDEmperor Qianlong (1711-1799) was a patron of the arts and enjoyed poetry. However his approach to libraries demonstrates his wish to control intellectual property.

Qianlong is shown on the left in a painting by Giuseppe Castiglione.

First, Qianlong made an Imperial Decree that individuals were to submit private library collections for use in the compilation of the Siku Quanshu. However even after the Qianlong indicated that people would not be prosecuted for items containing "bad word" only a few thousand books were submitted. A few more submissions were made when the government offered a reward.

A group then assembled a list of about 11,000 works to be published. He scheduled about 3000 titles to be destroyed because they did not meet his criteria because they were rebellious, insulting, or discussed problems with the administration. Around 150,000 were burned or banned. Many more were modified. Known as the literary inquisition, many individuals were persecuted and 53 people killed because their words offended the government. Many of the killings had more to do with local political interests than concerns about content.

Treason by the Book by Johnathan Spence Book CoverBetween 1773 and 1782, Qianlong assembled scholars from around the country to create new scholarly works in the areas of philosophy, history and literature. Known as the Four Treasuries project, he hired an editorial board of 361 scholars and 15,000 copyists to create the 36,000 volumes which contained 3450 works.

A copy of the final version of the Siku Quanshu was placed in four specially constructed libraries in the Forbidden City, Old Summer Palace, Shenyang, and Wenjin Chamber, Chengde. Additional copies went to libraries in Hangzhou, Zhenjiang, and Yangzhou.

To learn more about this time period in Chinese history, read Treason by the Book by Jonathan Spence. This book focuses on the case of Zeng Jing during the Literary Inquisition.

Dig DeeperDig Deeper
Read Roberts, Daphne & Duckett, Bob (2006). The Bradford Library and Literary Society, 1774-1980. Library History, 22(3), 213-226.


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

Hayes, Kevin J. (2008). The Oxford Handbook of Early American Literature. Oxford University Press.

Moore, J. Bailey (1893). History of the Town of Candia, Rockingham County, N.H. Available: http://www.archive.org/stream/historyoftownofc00moor/historyoftownofc00moor_djvu.txt

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

Smally, Joseph (January 1991). The French Cataloging Code of 1791: a translation. The Library Quarterly, 61(1), 1-14.

Spence, Jonathan (2002). Treason by the Book. Penguin.

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