A History Of Avid Readers  and Libraries

The American Library Association selected “Communities Matter @Your Library” for the theme of this year’s National Library Week, observed in April each year. While that is stated in a modern style, the relationship between local communities and libraries is well established. Since the 18th century, libraries have been a vital part of towns on both sides of the Connecticut River.

Many of the earliest citizens of the area were literate and some were voracious readers. Randolph A. Roth states in his book, The Democratic Dilemma, that by the beginning of the 19th century the Connecticut River Valley “had one of the highest literacy rates in the world.” Approximately 95 percent of men and 85 percent of women could read and write. This was due in large part to the Protestant emphasis on individuals being able to read the Bible.

However, because books were expensive, families owned few books other than religious ones. At the time, individuals often measured their affluence by the number of books in their collection. Early on, some individuals came to realize the value of sharing their meager collections. In February 1774, James Whitelaw of Ryegate, Vt., went to Massachusetts and purchased books for the common use of the residents. Ryegate had perhaps the first circulating library in the state.

In 1796, the Vermont General Assembly approved the Bradford Social Library, the first so incorporated. An early social library was chartered in Orford in 1797. In Lyme, a library was established in 1798 with 37 proprietors, each of whom initially paid 50 cents to be a member.

Social or parlor libraries held collections that circulated among shareholders. Sometimes others were allowed to access the collection for a subscription fee. Books were kept in a member’s home, a local tavern, church or store. This interest in libraries was characteristic of the “village enlightenment” of the period, which encouraged the study of culture and the sciences.

There was enough interest in creating local social libraries in Vermont that, in 1800, the legislature enacted a general law incorporating library societies within the state.

There was a succession of social libraries established in Haverhill, the first in 1801. In 1812, its name was changed to the Aurelian Social Library. In 1829, two successors, the South Social Library and the North Social Library, were organized. In 1845, the desire for a social library led to another being established with a collection of about 250 volumes. All included books from local printers and bookstores. This pattern of libraries being established and then gradually disappearing only to be revived years later was normal in many area towns.

The regulations of the Bradford Social Library in the late 1790s give us some insight into the operation of a library at the time. “Books are to be drawn the last two hours before sunsetting [and] the fine for burning the midnight candle and letting a drop of tallow fall upon the print was four cents, when it fell upon the margin it was two cents. The dire penalty for turning down a leaf was three cents, and until the fines were paid the offender could draw no books.”

One variation on the social library was the athenaeum, the first of which was founded in Boston in 1807. This cultural institution was established to provide a stimulating atmosphere for “the study of the greater works of learning and science.” It did so through the acquisition of books, art and artifacts and by holding lectures and discussion groups. The St. Johnsbury Athenaeum was established in 1871 by Horace Fairbanks. When it opened it was the state’s most costly and well-equipped library.

Locally, there were lyceums established, a version of the athenaeum without the expansive collection or building. These lecture and discussion groups were popular from the 1830s through the Civil War and then evolved into the Chautauqua Movement. In 1857, the Bradford Scientific Association was formed and within the next 20 years accumulated “a cabinet of minerals, specimens of natural history, and various ... curiosities [and] a good beginning of a valuable library.”

Most of these early libraries were not truly public, with books loaned to the general population. But in 1833, in Peterborough, N.H., the first free public library supported by taxes was established. It was so well received that by 1849 New Hampshire passed a law permitting local governments to appropriate tax funds for the purchase of books and maintenance of public library buildings. It was the first state to pass such a supportive law.

About 1858, an unusual short-lived intercommunity library known as the People’s Circulating Library was established by A.B. Palmer of Orfordville. In towns such as Hanover and Littleton in New Hampshire and Bradford and Newbury in Vermont, there was a local library agent. At regular periods, Palmer exchanged books that had been read in one town for those he collected from another.

Before the end of the 19th century, libraries were created in almost every town in our area. They attracted patrons with a larger variety of books, especially novels and children’s books. Gradually all, even those that remained private in ownership, began to receive funds from state and local government sources. They also continue to rely on the generosity of donors, including some rather large donations.

The writer is president of the Bradford Historical Society and author of two volumes on regional history now available at local bookstores.