Local Roots, Atlantic Routes: Social Libraries, the Book Trade, and Print-Culture Networks in Early America

Saturday, January 9, 2010: 9:40 AM
Manchester Ballroom H (Hyatt)
Lynda K. Yankaskas , Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA
Of the nearly seven hundred books donated to the Burlington, New Jersey, social library in its first year (1758), more than half came from ten members of the extended Smith family.  The majority of the first year’s borrowers also came from this well-connected family, which was related by birth or marriage to an array of prominent Philadelphia clans. The dependence of the library on the activities of this one family suggests the extent to which village library societies in early America depended on close-knit networks of neighbors and kin.  In turn, however, such libraries fostered networks that extended not only across towns but across regions, and even across the Atlantic.  In Salem and Concord, Massachusetts, for example, social libraries imported books from Boston and London, and members regularly reported visits to and correspondence with sister libraries in Boston and Philadelphia.             

Exploring the local, regional, national, and international networks that bound members of individual social libraries to each other and one social library to the next, I argue that these institutions served as central nodes binding together cities and their hinterlands and ultimately the young nation as a whole.  Through the book trade, newspaper and periodical subscriptions, and policies that allowed for liberal use of libraries by out-of-town visitors, social libraries enmeshed themselves in networks based on family, friendship, and business ties and in turn shaped and strengthened those networks.  Drawing on institutional and town records, newspapers, and maps, this paper closely examines several Revolutionary-era social libraries in New England and the mid-Atlantic to recover their associated networks and consider the ways they joined close-knit local communities to national and Atlantic worlds of print.

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