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).
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today”
“THE Proprietors of the Providence Library are hereby notified to meet at the Court-House.”
David Rowland, “Librarian, pro Tempore,” placed this advertisement to notify “Proprietors” of the Providence Library Company (founded 1753) that a meeting was planned to elect a new Librarian on March 28. The advertisement also notified anyone who had books belonging to the library to return them.
The greatest change in libraries over time has been to access by general readers. Today, most town libraries are open to the public but require a library card to access their collection. These are the libraries used by most person. In eighteenth-century America, access to libraries was more restricted because most were based on a monthly or yearly paid membership.
According to William Burns, the two most popular types of libraries in the eighteenth century were circulating libraries and subscription libraries. Circulating libraries had lower subscription fees, paid weekly to borrow books. Subscription libraries normally had higher membership rates and were associated with reading societies.
The Junto, Benjamin Franklin’s discussion group in Philadelphia, created one of the most famous subscription libraries. It still exists today as the Library Company of Philadelphia. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the library was one of the five largest in the United States. The Library Company of Philadelphia is a good example of how libraries are valued in our society: some last multiple centuries. Over time, other libraries that give open access to the public have joined them. Although Americans did not expect to find libraries open to all in the eighteenth century, many valued libraries and the access to knowledge and entertainment they provided.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Printers and booksellers frequently advertised their wares in eighteenth-century newspapers, sometimes listing dozens of titles, sometimes promoting a particular book, and sometimes seeking subscribers as a means of gauging interest in books they intended to publish (provided the public responded with sufficient demand in advance). A reading revolution took place in the eighteenth century as consumers purchased greater numbers of books and their reading habits shifted from intensive reading of bibles, devotional texts, and almanacs to extensive reading from an array of genres.
The reading revolution also included the founding of private lending libraries by civic organizations, including the Library Company of Philadelphia (1731), the Charleston Library Society (1748), and the Providence Library Company (1753). Daniel has already provided a brief sketch of two models for operating libraries – subscription libraries and circulating libraries – that gave colonists greater access to books than most would have been able to purchase on their own.
As Daniel notes, subscription libraries and circulating libraries charged different rates to access their collections. In exchange for paying the fees, readers received different benefits. Members of subscription libraries paid annual fees for unlimited borrowing privileges, giving them broad access to the library company’s collections. Nonsubscribers could also borrow books, paying variable fees based on the size of the book (the dimensions of the pages – folio, octavo, duodecimo – not the length of the text) and the length of time they kept the book. On the other hand, circulating libraries did not usually have annual subscription fees. Instead, they charged by the week, which allowed patrons to keep expenses down by choosing how often to check out books. Circulating libraries also limited access to one book at a time.
Circulating libraries facilitated the reading revolution. A significant aspect of the shift from intensive to extensive reading involved the rise of the novel and reading for pleasure, especially by women. Subscription libraries tended not to obtain novels, but, as William Burns notes, novels “were the lifeblood of the circulating library.” Furthermore, “women comprised about half the membership of the circulating libraries,” but subscription libraries did not admit female readers (though that did not prevent men from checking out books for female relatives and friends).
Despite differences in membership, collections, and operating structure, both subscription libraries and circulating libraries emerged exclusively in cities in the eighteenth century, pointing to another important distinction between libraries then and now. Daniel notes that public libraries operated by local municipalities have greatly expanded access to information and services. Organizations like the Providence Library Company played an important role in that process as they allowed early Americans greater access to books than they previously experienced.