Imagining Communal Intellectual History: Libraries and Their Readers

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.


  1. This is a wonderful, provocative piece. It raises some interesting twists on rather established routes of writing histories of reading. Grand historians of the book like Robert Darnton and Roger Chartier have looked to the history of publishing and of material texts. Others like Lisa Jardine, Anthony Grafton, and William Sherman have done groundbreaking work on how individual readers used (and marked up) their books and used private libraries. Bourdieu, Gisèle Sapiro, John B. Thompson, and other sociologists have reconstructed communities of readers from the top-down of publishers or from the bottom-up of readers themselves. And scholars like Jonathan Rose and Franco Moretti keeps expanding this picture to take hitherto overlooked or greater numbers of readers into account, too.

    Hence public libraries’ records seem to supplement rather than to remake or to fundamentally challenge this historiographical landscape. Here your ‘non-anthropomorphic’ suggestions seem really promising. I would add a few other ideas and ask what you think. As the case of that one copy of “Edward Mortimer” suggests, books could pass between quite antagonistic readers. The thing about library copies is that they also often contain marginalia, sometimes in conversation with the remarks of previous readers. (Here I would love to see some sort of work on the etiquette of marginalia in American libraries, and perhaps a minor resurgence with the advent of pencils and erasable texts.) Some really fascinating work has emerged recently on the destruction of library books, too (including from the JHI blog’s contributing editor Brooke Palmieri): .

    Similarly, you cannot entirely pull the books away from the larger character of specific libraries. There are grand political and policy histories behind every library’s founding, donation and acquisition schemes, and continued funding. Libraries have political, class, geographic, and economic characters all of their own—even legal deposit libraries or university collections. Speaking to the broader 20th century European context, I know that political parties and their presses also founded libraries apart from state funding schemes. (I would love to hear more about this in the American context!) Taking libraries as a unit of analysis seems to open outward just as they also come under pressure from the top again—politics, funding, publishers—and from below, that is, from readers’ own political, intellectual, and even religious histories.

    So a few questions: 1) How would we usefully distinguish between public, private, and university libraries’ records? 2) Is library data really the best place to begin historical work, or is it a stepping stone or end point of narratives? 3) How representative can we take library readers to be, especially as publishing begins to accommodate middle- and lower-class readers? 4) This is not quite the point of your post, but how are library copies of books distinct as material texts (say in the absence of marginalia)? And I would really like to hear more about your thoughts on books never checked out, especially in the advent of legal lending libraries a bit further on. (Here I think of my own research and the Suhrkamp edition of the complete works of Hegel. Intellectuals would buy it and showcase it on their shelves, but you’ll still run into used copies all over the place that were clearly never read.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi John,

      Thanks for the wonderful comment! I agree that there is a tradition of intellectual historians considering more carefully the material text as part of the transmission and reception of ideas, but I think there is still much that can be done because those studies often focus on individual outliers of one sort or another. Libraries are of unique value because, while each does have a fascinating institutional, legal, and social history, as institutional presences in (and of) their communities, they offer the opportunity to consider a well-defined aggregate of the community and the bonds forged within it. As I suggest in the article, library records are fine-grained enough to offer a basis for charting the rhythms of intellectual life in the pre-modern era and also for beginning to consider how reading related to other cultural, social, and economic activities. Put another way, the library may not have been a particularly important presence in any one person’s life who used it, but the relative importance of that presence changes when we begin to compile everyone’s distributed, sometimes seemingly random, activity, then patterns will likely begin to emerge.

      To turn to the questions you bring up, I’ll try to answer them as fully as I can.

      1) I think libraries can be most usefully distinguished based on how and whether access to a collection was regulated. For example, the New York Society Library required an individual to hold a share in order to take a book out of the library; in contrast, early eighteenth century parish libraries delivered to Anglican parishes in the early eighteenth-century were open to any parishioner of the church who desired to take them. Often, it’s unclear how tightly restrictions were practiced, but I think–as I mentioned above—it’s important to remember that books were fairly rare and thus restricting access was taken seriously. Of course, concerns about access become much less important after the mid-19th century, but I think it can still be valuable to consider how libraries–even putatively public ones–regulated access to their collections, particularly as an embedded practice of legal or extra-legal discrimination against political, ethnic, or economic others.

      2) As I suggested above, library data is a place to tell a particular blend of intellectual and social history. With a collection as rich as the New York Society Library, it is possible to tell a compelling history that relates the institution to larger political histories. I recently wrote a piece about the re-founding of the Society Library in 1789 that recovers its perceived importance as part of the ongoing effort to keep New York the capital of the newly United States. While libraries in later periods are much more broadly available, I do think that framing the library as an institutional presence or even actor can be compelling. Libraries are, of course, as much a technology of control as access, and I think emphasizing that tension can help to make clearer the stakes of even the most seemingly innocuous institutional decisions and practices.

      3) I’m wary of any claims of a group of readers at a given library as representative, I’m not sure how we could establish that on any meaningful empirical basis (economic status? cultural prestige?), although a lot of interest might be learned in the attempt. I think libraries’ value lies in their developing an aggregate that can be tested and compared with other aggregates, not because any given aggregate is necessarily representative of a larger trend but because those comparisons could offer useful, and otherwise almost completely unavailable, data on intellectual activity at a scale otherwise inaccessible to us in the present. I am stepping around the question a bit, but I think it is important never to take the user base of a library as “representative” of some larger group because it would assume that some kind of regular distribution could exist for a voluntaristic activity, which seems unlikely. We have very little sense, even today, about why particular individuals are heavy library users while their neighbors, friends, family members, etc. may never access one. But I think this is a very valuable question to ask, one that isn’t discussed often enough in either intellectual history or the history of libraries.

      4) The question of how library books differ from other books is one that intrigues me and one that I think is—for the most part—not studied by scholars. To take the example of the New York Society Library again, the most distinctive institutionally mandated feature of their books is the bookplate pasted into the front of each. Bookplates are common in both individual and library collections, but I think they do offer a useful index for comparing the institutional ambitions and interests of different libraries. As to marginalia and other forms of notation, library books can be a gold mine; I think a particularly excellent digital humanities project, currently in progress, is Book Traces ( Sponsored by University of Virginia, the project is an attempt to establish the historical value of mostly 19th century books that remain in the general stacks of many research and public libraries by documenting marginalia, illustrations, and other forms of interactions with books through digital photographs. The uploaded photos offer all kinds of intriguing examples of how readers interacted with library books. I can imagine that if the project continues to grow and expand it could become a resource for establishing a more nuanced understanding of how institutional borrowers interacted differently with their books than individual owners.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s