by guest contributor Rob Koehler
Intellectual history and the histories of libraries have always had a peculiarly tangential relationship to one another. Intellectual history as practiced in the United States often pursues the transmission and transformation of ideas through texts, but less often engages with the means by which books got from place to place or how networks of readers at a given institution interacted with ideas to which they had joint access. Similarly, library historians have tended to focus less on the possibilities for exploring the diffusion of ideas through libraries and more on their developing institutional forms or the changing political valences of their founding, operation, and institutional self-presentation to the communities in which they existed. Yet, the development of large sets of digitized borrowing and holding records from historical libraries, along with efforts to preserve reading experiences through oral histories, offers a fruitful moment to re-consider how the methods of intellectual and library history might be productively fused to develop new insights into the life of the mind in previous historical epochs. Through examples provided by the rich records of the City Readers project at the New York Society Library, I want to offer two observations about how the resources and methods of library history might usefully broaden the purview of intellectual historians.


The New York Society Library at its third location on Broadway at Leonard Street, which also housed the Academy of Design, c. 1840. In 1856 the Library sold the building to the publisher and bookseller D. Appleton & Co., and moved to a new location on University Place. Image courtesy of the New York Society Library.

The first observation is that library records challenge any easy assumptions about the methods of reading and motives for reading of people in the past. Take for example, the borrowing records of Alexander Hamilton—a figure enjoying a powerful renaissance in popular culture as financial genius and self-made immigrant. Hamilton became a member of the Library immediately after its refounding in 1789; he was not particularly active as a borrower, he checked out only two books, but those two books open suggestive questions about Hamilton’s intellectual activities as he was beginning work as the first Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton checked out two novels: The History of the Honourable Edward Mortimer, a recent British romance that was popular with many of the library’s subscribers, the other, Eleanora, an English translation of a novel by Goethe. Often understood as a hard-bitten elitist with little sympathy for popular tastes, Hamilton could not have been more in the mainstream of popular literary taste in his selection of novels. Fifty other subscribers—of all different political persuasions—checked out these same books in 1790; Tunis Wortman, soon to be a powerful voice in opposition to the Federalist fiscal and military policies of Hamilton, checked out Edward Mortimer immediately before Hamilton.
Then and now, the reading of popular novels is often portrayed as a frivolous and even somewhat morally suspect behavior, but that didn’t stop even the most elitist of the Founding Fathers from reading them anyway. As Elizabeth Ott recently pointed out on this blog in reference to the Sheffield Reads oral history project, we have little understanding or exploration of the intellectual history of reading for pleasure rather than improvement, perhaps because—just as Hamilton himself likely would have—we wish to distance ourselves from such dissipated and putatively non-intellectual practices. More generally, because of the intellectual seriousness that governed both the public behavior of the Founding Fathers and the sometimes almost suffocating decorum of the intellectual histories of the Founding Era, we have few investigations of the impact of works of popular literature on elite culture and the mechanics by which knowledge of them spread through communities. While I do not want to claim that we need an intellectual history of popular literature of the Founding Era, several suggestive studies—including those of Cathy Davidson, Julie Ellison, and Bryan Waterman—already exist and provide intriguing insights, I do want to suggest that beginning with borrowing records can disrupt otherwise entrenched perspectives on the intellectual investments or predispositions of well-studied figures and eras.

The Society Library’s first bookplate, designed by William Livingston (1723-1790) and etched by Elisha Gallaudet (1728-1779). Image courtesy of the New York Society Library.

Following that hope, my second observation is that library records can open up entirely new ways to engage the spread and transformation of ideas in the communities they served. Rather than beginning with an individual, faceted records allow the opportunity to begin with other, non-anthropocentric perspectives. For example, as librarians and bibliographers have been doing for years, one can begin with the life cycle of a single book: how it arrived at an institution, how long it was checked out by each individual who read it, and when it either disappears from records or stopped being checked out altogether. To take another perspective, one can begin with a given year and explore all of the books that were checked out in that year: what were the most and least popular books, when were users particularly active or inactive, and more generally, how did diurnal and seasonal cycles impact intellectual pursuits in the pre-modern era? Or, to take a third perspective, perhaps the most intriguing to me: what books were held by the library but never checked out by a user; what book or books never appealed to a reader in early New York?
Turning to these questions would open on to a broader intellectual history of a particular community, in this case New York City, but that could be taken up elsewhere as well. Digitized holdings records are available for other libraries as well, including those of English Dissenting Academies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and of the Muncie, IN Public Library from 1891-1902. Making use of different interfaces to expose their data, these early efforts each offer different insights into their collections and suggest different questions that might be asked. The New York Society Library also plans to continue expanding its collection of digitized records, with the long term goal of making all of its borrowing ledgers from 1789-1909 available digitally. With a record set that rich and diverse, it is possible to begin imagining writing a more comprehensive intellectual history of New York communities from below, beginning with those groups of readers—whether they were reading the newest popular novel or the most austere moral philosophy—who came to the same book and engaged with it as part of their individual intellectual life.
Rob Koehler is a PhD. candidate in English at New York University. He works at the intersections of education, literature, and publishing in early America, examining the political, legal, and cultural origins of schools and libraries as public institutions.