- The Alexandria Library Company
Founded in 1794 and incorporated four years later, the Alexandria Library Company is one of the oldest continuously operating social libraries in the United States. The collection is now housed in the public library of Alexandria, Virginia. Readers will appreciate historian and preservationist William Seale’s graceful and informative writing but feel less served by the lack of notes and index. While Seale presents the company in historical context, its significance in terms of library history [End Page 225]is ignored. 1The book is handsomely laid out with numerous color illustrations mostly from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books surviving in the collection.
The Alexandria Library Company, originally both a proprietary and subscription library with 119 founding members, is an example of a form of library not uncommon in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in America and elsewhere. Founders and subscribers are listed at the end of the book. While more than a gentlemen’s club, this type of corporate readership largely disappeared once tax-supported libraries, open to a wider public and with greater resources, became popular after the 1850s. Americans may be more familiar with the Library Company of Philadelphia (1731), the Charleston Library Society (1748), or the Boston Athenaeum (founded in 1807).
Much as Jesse Shera discovered for social libraries in New England, the Alexandria Library Company fortunes appear to have varied with the economy. The company rented rooms from a local lyceum when the latter erected a building in 1840 but went through a period of “suspended animation” in the 1840s only to revive in the early 1850s through a merger with a Young Men’s Society (52).
Catalogs were published in 1801, 1815, and 1856 but receive little analysis here. The company bought serious books, by and large, with fiction assuming a more prominent place after the initial catalog. Seale dryly notes that the “Library Company seems to have been a good place to deposit obsolete papers” (59). The company also began sponsoring lectures to raise money, a tradition continued today with black-tie dinner presentations.
The library fell into “wild confusion” and lost about three-quarters of its books during the Civil War yet got started again as a place of “innocent amusement” in 1868 (69, 75). There was greater use by “ladies” (and the company even had woman librarians), but the library closed in 1879 from lack of interest. Twenty-two years later another subscription library opened with the remaining stock of books. Run as a volunteer effort by women out of the United Daughters of the Confederacy building without municipal support, it had some membership but no legal connections to the earlier company. Alice Green was the librarian from 1902 until the city finally assumed responsibility in 1937.
Seale glides over an important civil rights read-in demonstration organized by Samuel Tucker in 1939 that resulted in the opening of a branch African American library (not, apparently, as the text says, the opening of the Alexandria Library to all citizens). 2The Library Company still appoints three members of the library board and the city of Alexandria three, but otherwise the company appears to have little connection to the public library outside its lecture series. Its books and papers are now part of the Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library, Mrs. Barrett being a long-time supporter of the women’s library.
This attractive and well-written book adds local detail to the little that is known about Southern social libraries and merits attention.
1. For instance, David Scott Turk, “For the Love of Books: Antebellum Library Companies in Virginia,” Virginia Cavalcade49 (Winter 2000): 30–39, is not referenced. [End Page 226]
2. Peter Wallenstein, Cradle of America: Four Centuries of Virginia History(Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007), 330; “America’s First Sit-Down Strike: The Alexandria Library Sit-Down,” http://oha.alexandriava.gov/bhrc/lessons/bh-lesson2_reading2.html , accessed July 5, 2007; S. J. Ackerman, “Samuel Wilbert Tucker: The Unsung Hero of the School...