Loving Libraries

November 19, 2012

January 19, 1819 – March 21, 1819

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams: “About a week before I received your favor of Dec. 30 the 22d. No. of the North American review had come to hand, without my knowing from what quarter. . . I had never before seen the work; but have read this No. with attention and great satisfaction. It may stand boldly on the shelf by the side of the Edinburg Review; and, as I find that Mr. Channing has agents in George town and Richmond, where I can readily make the necessary payments, I shall write to one of them to enter me as a subscriber. I see with pride that as we are ahead of Europe in Political science, so on other subjects we are getting along side of them.”

Curiosity leads me to the digital archive of the North American Review at Cornell University. I should probably be over this by now, but I’m still shocked by the amount of information available to me just by typing a few words in a search engine. Considering how much time and effort Jefferson and Adams spent trying to procure books to satisfy their quest for knowledge, maybe I shouldn’t get over it. It’s ridiculous how easy it is for us today.

The North American Review was founded in Boston in 1815. Here’s a sampling from the table of contents of Volume 8, Issue: 22, December 1818:

Trumbull’s History of Connecticut
pp. 72-118
Women, or Pour et Contre
pp. 118-135
Battle of Niagara and Goldau
pp. 142-157
Clinton’s Discourse before the Literary and Philosophical Society of New York
pp. 157
National Poetry
pp. 169-176
Health of Literary Men
pp. 176-181
Literary Institutions, – University, – Library
pp. 191-200

The article on literary institutions was probably of interest to Jefferson, as he was in the middle of getting his new University of Virginia up and running. Who knows, maybe that’s why someone sent him a copy. In a number of his letters he asks JA for his recommendations on courses of study or books for the school.

The article is mostly concerned with affirming that universities need to have a top-notch library, and, in comparing institutions, the author echoes Jefferson’s concern about the USofA catching up with Europe:

“It is also of great importance, that the library of a university should not only be good, but very good, ample, munificent, a deposit of the world’s knowledge. It is a grievous thing to be stopped short in the midst of an inquiry for, perhaps, the very book, that throws most light upon it; and the progress of learning must be but small indeed among us, so long as the student must send across the Atlantic at every turn for the necessary aids to his purruits. It is not with us as it is in Europe, where very many large libraries exist, and where what is not contained in one, may be found in another . . .”

The top two libraries in the country, says the author, are the “Philadelphia library” (presumably the Library Company of Philadelphia, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731) and the “Library of Harvard University at Cambridge,” each with about 30,000 volumes, compared to, for example, “the University Library at Cambridge, England, 90,000 volumes.”

Today the Harvard University Library contains 16.8 million volumes. The Library Company of Philadelphia, which originated under Ben Franklin as a lending library, is now an “independent research library concentrating on American society and culture from the 17th through the 19th centuries,” and it contains “over half a million rare books, manuscripts, pamphlets, broadsides, prints, and photographs relating to early American history.”

Whoever wrote for the North American Review sure loved libraries:

“A man of liberal and enlarged views finds a congenial air in the neighborhood of a large library. He perceives himself within reach of his mind’s sustenance, and to place him where there is a dearth of books, is to make the air which he breathes sharp and thin.”

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