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"The Choice of Books": Ainsworth Rand Spofford, the Ideology of Reading, and Literary Collections at the Library of Congress in the 1870s
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"The Choice of Books"
Ainsworth Rand Spofford, the Ideology of Reading, and Literary Collections at the Library of Congress in the 1870s

Ainsworth Rand Spofford was no fan of what he called the "grassy incubations" of Walt Whitman. As a thirty-five-year-old newspaper editor in Cincinnati in 1860, Spofford criticized Whitman's poetry on various grounds, including incoherence and indecency: "What we complain of in Walt Whitman, aside from that gross and obtrusive animalism which disgusts all intellectual men, is his utter contempt for expression, and the formless and apparently aimless character of his productions."1 With these comments in mind, it is surprising to find Librarian of Congress Spofford writing to Whitman sixteen years later, asking him to confirm that the six editions of Leaves of Grass held by the Library of Congress were indeed all of the authorized editions.2 Though Whitman's reputation steadily rose through the late nineteenth century, Spofford had not changed his opinion of the poet's work: he pointedly left Whitman's name out of some original verses celebrating American literary authors in 1900.3 The narrative that emerges from these events would tend to valorize Spofford as a visionary librarian who put aside his personal taste in the interest of establishing the Library of Congress as a national library with comprehensive collections. The centerpiece of his collection-building efforts, of course, was the copyright deposit law of 1870, which secured for the Library all publications of the American press submitted for copyright protection.

My intention in this essay is not to challenge this narrative but to complicate it. Spofford deserves immense credit for the copyright deposit law as well as for his long campaign for a building whose grandeur would be commensurate with the institution's status as a de facto national library. But Spofford was, inevitably, a product of the culture of Victorian America. The growth of professional librarianship in the late nineteenth century took place alongside challenging developments in [End Page 70] literary publishing in the United States, and Spofford's career must be understood within these contexts. While arguing passionately for wide inclusion as the guiding principle of collection development at the Library of Congress, Spofford retained a paternalistic ethic of exclusion when it came to personal reading habits and public library selection practices. Moreover, for all of Spofford's eloquence on the principle of inclusion at the Library of Congress, his adverse judgments about the cultural value of popular literature were somewhat reflected in the Library's literary collections and cataloging practices. An analysis of post-1870 Library catalogs along with works Spofford published outside of his official duties as Librarian reveals his ambivalence about the very collections his efforts made possible.

The Fiction Question

Spofford expressed his philosophy regarding reading practices and library collection policies in A Book for All Readers, published in 1900. In the first chapter, "The Choice of Books," he offered guidelines to librarians and individual readers about the most important subject areas to collect, including bibliographical resources to help them make selections. Spofford advised readers to begin with biographies and histories before proceeding to essays, poetry, travel literature, science, fiction, literary history, and classical literature. His advice on reading in A Book for All Readers squared perfectly with the ideology of reading that drove the library profession in the late nineteenth century. The ideology included several tenets: "read with a purpose," "read systematically and widely," "digest what you read," and read with discrimination.4 Similar sentiments are found in other influential guides to book collecting, such as Frederic B. Perkins's The Best Reading (first published in 1872), which provided a bibliography of titles along with "Readings on Reading" and "Suggestions for Courses of Reading."5 Spofford endorsed the principle of literary selectivity in the eight-volume anthology The Library of Choice Literature, which he coedited with Charles Gibbon in 1883, and in a pamphlet entitled What to Read; When to Read; How to Read, published the same year. Spofford's A Book for All Readers was therefore part of a larger effort among librarians and self-appointed cultural arbiters of the period to shape the reading habits...