- Institutions of Reading: The Social Life of Libraries in the United States
Collections of essays from diverse hands rarely achieve uniformity in topic, tone, treatment, or quality. The essays in this volume are a case in point. Some are excellent, well organized, and clearly written, based on impressive sources, marshaled to make a convincing case on an issue of some importance. Others are less successful and at times puzzling.
This book had its origins in a conference entitled "The History of Libraries in the United States" held in Philadelphia in April 2002. Of the dozen essays, however, apparently only one-third were presented at the conference. The others were presumably commissioned by the editors to "extend the chronological coverage to the twenty-first century and develop in new directions the central questions that emerged from the conference about the nature and purposes of the library" (ix). The result is an unusual mélange of articles that share little in common other than that they are about libraries—and one or two only barely that.
Thomas Augst's lengthy introduction constitutes an essay in itself. He begins and ends with a discussion of how digital technology is altering the very idea of the library and in the process provides a cursory but very useful overview of the history of the relationship between libraries and readers. Augst describes how library spaces, whether real or virtual, create social frameworks for readers to engage with both texts and other readers, to build communities, both real and virtual, and to use both new and old technologies for "remembering the past and embracing the future" (4).
In the book's first essay, an overview of eighteenth-century social libraries and library societies, James Raven describes how colonial libraries, while emulating British examples, were established to address local needs and interests. At the end of the eighteenth century there was a dramatic shift in the nature of materials acquired for society libraries, from serious literature toward books for entertainment, indicating an increasing demand for fiction and reflecting "the changing idea of the library and of its social and cultural resonance" (48). While Raven's essay is well documented, it is difficult to imagine a discussion of colonial social libraries without reference to the pioneering work of Hanes McMullen.
James Green's essay compares subscription libraries with commercial circulating libraries in colonial Philadelphia and New York. Because subscription libraries were so common in the colonies, commercial circulating libraries were slow to develop. When they did appear in the 1760s, they proliferated rapidly, reflecting the rapid growth both in literacy and in print production in the colonies. Green concludes that the economic instability associated with the Revolution "killed off [End Page 376] the colonial circulating libraries" (70), leaving subscription libraries in sole possession of the library field following the war.
Michael Baenen provides a detailed analysis of the Portsmouth Athenaeum and the pivotal role it played in the politics of the city, calling it "the central social institution of a tight-knit elite that continued to dominate civic life" (83). It consistently counted the wealthiest men among its members, who, like the members of the Boston Athenaeum, resisted attempts to transform it into a public library.
The close and mutually reinforcing relationship between African American reading rooms and libraries, on the one hand, and the black press, on the other, forms the central thesis of Elizabeth McHenry's excellent essay. She demonstrates that the literary societies formed by black leaders in the antebellum North were "at the heart of a political agenda for promoting opportunities and equality for the nation's free black population that was grounded in African American literary practice" (102).
Barbara Mitchell contributes a fascinating investigation into the intersection of evolving library tools and techniques and the composition of the library workforce. She demonstrates how the demise of the book catalog and the subsequent rise of the card catalog related to the...