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Culture Club

In spite of these concerns, there were, in fact, many small libraries in America by the beginning of the nineteenth century, and Americans were reading voraciously. In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin’s successful lending library, founded in 1731, appealed to young tradesmen, who were willing to pay forty shillings to join and ten shillings in annual dues.xiv Other libraries would cater to difference classes. A simple taxonomy of those of the early national era includes social, or subscription, libraries; institutional libraries (such as that of Harvard College); and circulating, or commercial, libraries—the latter principally owned by booksellers who turned overstock into an asset by renting books for a nominal fee.xv Especially in port towns like Boston, news had become central to commercial life; it was among merchants that social libraries with reading rooms first had real utility. Subscription libraries in Newport, Charleston, and New York City had developed by the mid-1700s. And the Boston Library Society, founded in 1794, became an interesting alternative to the Athenaeum: six of its dozen or so founders were women, and the circulation of books was its chief object. (The Athenaeum would not allow books to circulate until 1827, and female readers were rare until the mid-nineteenth century.) The proliferation of small libraries meant that it was becoming fashionable to read in the United States. Yet literacy did not necessarily lead to a shared public culture, as book were used very differently from setting to setting.xvi Debate would continue to rage among the intelligentsia about the problem of fostering exemplary libraries nationwide.xvii

Given the preoccupation with library development, why did the Athenaeum, in particular, flourish? According to the North American Review, in 1826 the institution, “one of the earliest of the kind in the United States, … now bids fair to become the most important.” Simpson writes that the library owed its success in large part to Buckminster’s early decision to buy popular and useful books instead of the more specialized publications to which Shaw was chiefly attracted. “We must, at least for some time, think of popularity,” Buckminster told Shaw, “and I know of no method so likely to procure it, as to keep our rooms furnished with an abundance of magazines, pamphlets, and new books.”xviii Even elite subscription libraries such as the Athenaeum were forced to consider the reading market and to ascertain the most effective means of exploiting it.

As Ronald Story documents, the business and family connections among the wealthiest subscribers all but guaranteed money to fund acquisitions. By the late 1820s a powerful alliance of businessmen and a few intellectuals (led by George Ticknor and Nathaniel Bowditch) pushed forward administrative reforms and shrewd book purchases. In fact, this same group advocated the circulation of books among proprietors and the hiring of a professional librarian, Seth Bass, to whom a respectable salary was paid.xix But there were some atypical influences on the Athenaeum’s development. In the language of the official documentation, a veil of harmony seems to decorate the institution. The Athenaeum promulgated a seductive mission and created a pleasing cultural environment. Moreover, the reading context—the tacit knowledge about where books originated and how they were to be read—has always been part of the proper understanding of the texts.xx A library, and later a gallery, the Athenaeum held special status as a center for the storage, organization, and use of the arts.

Reprinted from Culture Club. Copyright © 2009 by Katherine Wolff and published by the University of Massachusetts Press.
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