- America's Membership Libraries
American membership libraries have displayed an amazing knack for outliving many other public and private institutions, as Nicolas Barker points out in the preface to this volume. "Their diversity and the success with which they have adapted themselves, their contents and activities, to a changing society around them, cannot be paralleled anywhere else," he elaborates. "It reflects a liberality of mind, philanthropic in the broadest sense, which the visitor can only admire. This quality and the individuality that distinguishes each from all the others are easier to applaud than define" (9). The book seeks to present the nation's sixteen largest membership libraries and, as a group, "to suggest the evolution of a particular kind of independent library in America during the past three centuries" (11), according to the introduction by editor Richard Wendorf, the Stanford Calderwood director and librarian of the Boston Athenaeum. The essays, most written by a staff member at the library being profiled, provide a brief history of each organization and its growth along with a description of key collections, architectural highlights, and interesting anecdotes about prominent members. A bibliography for further reading ends each essay, while color illustrations, albeit on the small side and of uneven quality, provide glimpses of polished interiors, well-preserved special collections, and manicured exteriors.
The membership library, also known as the social library, is an American innovation. The first of its kind was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731, when he and a group of associates formed the Library Company of Philadelphia (which now belongs to the Independent Research Library Association and is no longer a membership library). Franklin's idea of providing a collegial space where access to and discussion of a range of books was possible proved one of genuine appeal and lasting consequence. At the time, popular titles could be borrowed, by paying a fee per item or by subscribing for a specified term, from print shops and booksellers, who thus acted as the first circulating libraries. But the social library Franklin and his cohort envisioned was a nonprofit shareholder organization that acquired popular as well as more serious literature for circulation among members. The library became an enterprise driven by high-minded individuals seeking to better themselves and their community through the knowledge found in books.
Membership libraries responded to the needs of likeminded citizens who sought personal enrichment in the conversation engendered by intellectual pursuits. During their growth in the nineteenth century these libraries took on various other names. The mercantile library grew out of a need to serve clerks and merchants, and mechanics' libraries or institutes catered to the needs of apprentices and artisans. The athenaeum offered a broad range of cultural programming, such as lectures and exhibitions. Whatever its designation, the membership library has survived with the support of a loyal clientele who take reading and learning seriously enough to pay for the opportunity to do so in comfortable surroundings.
Why pay a membership fee to borrow a book when a nearby tax-supported library with its array of computers provides the same service? ask the two authors of an essay on the Charleston Library Society. "The simple answer," they write, "is that a visit or two will convince almost any user of libraries that this is a very traditional, very special place. First of all, we continue to rely on a card catalog [End Page 384] instead of a computer. Second, there is a main room, rather old-fashioned, in which the visitor is surrounded by books on shelves. Third, there is the quiet environment and almost family-like friendliness of the staff" (59–60). A similar mood prevails at the other fifteen libraries profiled. To conserve its distinctive charm, the Boston Athenaeum relies on conspicuous signage: "Please preserve the silence of this room" and "Here remains a retreat for those who would enjoy the humanity of books" (86).
Membership libraries might remain quietly anonymous, but the Providence Athenaeum gained some notoriety in 2005, when, facing fiscal...