What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“The PROPRIETORS of the Providence LIBRARY are hereby notified to meet.”
David S. Rowland was elected and served as librarian for the Providence Library Company (founded 1753) in the late 1760s and early 1770s. Late in the summer of 1769, he placed advertisements in the Providence Gazette to notify “PROPRIETORS of the Providence LIBRARY” of a meeting scheduled for September 4. He also published an outline of the agenda. The proprietors would gather “to concert Measures for the necessary Repairs of said Library, and to conclude whether or not Provision shall be made for the annual Enlargement of the Library, and transact other Affairs relative to its Wellbeing.”
All of this business was to be undertaken by the proprietors for the benefit of members of the Providence Library Company. The “Providence LIBRARY” was not open to the general public; instead members paid annual subscriptions for the privilege of using the library. Those subscriptions paid for the “Repairs,” “Enlargement” of the collection of books, and “other Affairs” that Rowland mentioned in his advertisement. The Providence Library Company was not alone in adopting this model for its operations. Indeed, this was standard practice for early American libraries, including the Library Company of Philadelphia (1731), the Company of the Redwood Library (Newport, 1747), the Charleston Library Society (1748), and the New York Society Library (1754).
The annual fees distinguished these subscription libraries, as they are known, from modern public libraries that open their doors to all users free of charge. Subscription libraries were not supported by the local municipalities for the benefit of all colonists, but rather by associations of readers and members who saw to their affairs and gained access only after pledging financial support. Many subscription libraries founded in the colonial era continue to operate today as research libraries patronized by scholars and others interested in early American history and culture. The Providence Library Company continues as the Providence Athenæum, incorporated in 1836. The new Providence Athenæum acquired the collections of both the Providence Library Company and an earlier Providence Athenæum (1831).