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Libraries & Culture 37.2 (2002) 132-137

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Passing the Torch:
Haynes McMullen's American Library History Database and American Libraries Before 1876

Bill Olbrich

American Libraries Before 1876 by Haynes McMullen. Westport, Conn., and London: Greenwood Press, 2000. xiv, 179 pp. $62.50. ISBN 0-313-31277-X.

After forty years of historical research and data collecting, Haynes McMullen unveils the first monograph produced from his American Library History Database. Jesse Shera and Haynes McMullen personally created the database, and it is only in McMullen's twilight years that he even employs student assistants in its maintenance. Their work is the equal of Robin Alston's much larger (British Isles) Library History Database. The American database records slightly over ten thousand libraries before 1876; the British, thirty thousand before 1851. The American database ends with the publication of part 1 of the U.S. Bureau of Education's Public Libraries in the United States of America: Their History, Condition, and Management in 1876, while the British stops with the Public Libraries Act in 1851. Portions of the American Library History Database appeared in several articles for this periodical as McMullen honed his statistics and sharpened their meanings. Now Haynes McMullen's short and concise magnum opus,American Libraries Before 1876, is perhaps the most significant work of American library history since those of Jesse Shera and Sidney Ditzion half a century ago.

What McMullen does in American Libraries Before 1876 is to surpass his previous short studies by providing a framing structure for future meaningful research in American library history at national, regional, state, and local levels. The book is first and foremost a compilation of descriptive statistics of groups of libraries established before 1876 for the regions and states of the United States. McMullen categorizes each identified American library as one of eighty-one different "kinds," [End Page 132] depending on how the library received its working capital. Like Jesse Shera, who gave his research files to McMullen in a rare example of a historian passing the torch, McMullen defines his library institutions according to their funding source, whether by government, voluntary associations, or benevolent individuals. McMullen says he uses the intent of the library founders to determine its kind, but clientele and collections really follow funding as second and third determinators, respectively. This point must be taken seriously, especially during the nineteenth century, as books and libraries moved beyond passive elite audiences to politically active mass publics.

McMullen claims to have consulted over 450 sources--contemporary lists, library histories, library book catalogs, corporate charters, census schedules, and city directories--as well as local librarians and historians to create his impressive database. His bibliography, however, is extremely short and lists only major secondary sources. Robin Alston lists over twelve hundred sources for his British database. McMullen teases three independent variables for each of the ten thousand-plus American libraries from his sources: "kind" of library, location established by state, and date of establishment by decade. His indecisive attempts at separating other variables, especially library collections and targeted population, are less successful. McMullen also knowingly omits three kinds (school, church, and private libraries), whereas Alston still lacks only the private libraries for his British database.

McMullen shrinks the eighty-one kinds of the libraries into larger groups. He clearly announces he will "divide them [i.e., the eighty-one kinds] into five large groups that, to some extent, indicate the kinds of motives or attitudes that Americans had when they decided to form libraries." He then proceeds to describe six major categories for investigation and to write seven chapters on eight major categories of libraries open to at least a segment of the general population during this period. This irregularity of miscounting, seemingly a minor quibble, is very annoying and detracts from the book's admirable Olympian objectivity. My reckoning of McMullen's groups and kinds appears in the following list:

1. Social libraries (14 kinds)
2. Libraries belonging to organizations that were not formed to establish libraries (22 kinds)
3. Libraries belonging to institutions...


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