Before the Public Library

Reading, Community and Identity in the Atlantic World, 1650-1850


Before the Public Library explores the emergence of community-based lending libraries in the Atlantic World before the advent of the Public Library movement in the mid-nineteenth century. Essays by eighteen scholars from a range of disciplines seek to place, for the first time, community libraries within an Atlantic context over a two-century period. Taking a comparative approach, this volume shows that community libraries played an important – and largely unrecognized – role in shaping Atlantic social networks, political and religious movements, scientific and geographic knowledge, and economic enterprise. Libraries had a distinct role to play in shaping modern identities through the acquisition and circulation of specific kinds of texts, the fostering of sociability, and the building of community-based institutions.

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Mark Towsey PhD (2007), University of St Andrews, is Reader in Modern British History and Director of the Eighteenth-Century Worlds Research Centre at the University of Liverpool.

Kyle B. Roberts PhD (2007), University of Pennsylvania, is Associate Professor of Public History and New Media in the History Department and Director of the Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities at Loyola University Chicago.
“This is a significant book and deserves to be widely read. Its chapters are ably argued and impressively researched. Major themes recur such as ideas of community libraries and the place of libraries in local and national identity, while the thorny question of fiction is well-rehearsed.”
Keith Manley, in: Library & Information History, Vol. 34, No. 3 (2018), pp. 184-185.

“Towsey and Roberts’s undertaking is unique and sets a new standard for historical exploration of library history. Without hesitation, I recommend thus important book for all libraries whose mission is to support and maintain access to quality research.”
Edward A. Goedeken, Iowa State University. In: Libraries: Culture, History, and Society, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2019), 121-123.

List of Illustrations
Notes on Contributors

Mark Towsey and Kyle B. Roberts

Part 1: Empire and Enlightenment

1 Building Religious Communities with Books: The Quaker and Anglican Transatlantic Libraries, 1650–1710
Louisiane Ferlier
2 Poetry and Civic Urbanism in the Coffee-House Library in the Mid-eighteenth Century
Markman Ellis
3 Of Mudfish, Harpsichords and Books: Libraries and Community in Eighteenth-Century Jamaica
April G. Shelford
4 Affleck Generations: The Libraries of the Boswells of Auchinleck, 1695–1825
James J. Caudle
5 Sedition, Revolution and Libertinism in Eighteenth-Century Brazil: The Library of Naturalist José Vieira Couto
Júnia Ferreira Furtado

Part 2: Revolution and Nation Building

6 Uncommon Knowledge: Late Eighteenth-Century American Subscription Library Collections
Cheryl Knott
7 Reading Sheffield: Sheffield Libraries and Book Clubs, 1771–1850
Sue Roe and Loveday Herridge
8 Challenging Institutional Ambitions: The Practice of Book Exchanges at the New York Society Library, 1789–1795
Rob Koehler
9 A “Quaint Corner” of the Reading Nation: Romantic Readerships in Rural Perthshire, 1780–1830
Katie Halsey

Part 3: Institutionalisation and Expansion

10 From Private Devotion to “Public” Education: Northern Dissenting Academy Libraries and Their Benefactors
Rachel Eckersley
11 The Foundation of Plymouth Public Library: Cultural Status, Philanthropy and Expanding Readerships, 1810–1825
Annika Bautz
12 Reading on the Edge of the Atlantic: The Easton Library Company
Christopher Phillips
13 Crafting Respectability: The Politics of Class at the Mechanic Apprentices’ Library of Boston
Lynda K. Yankaskas

Part 4: Public Libraries

14 Reading Publics: Books, Communities and Readers in the Early History of American Public Libraries
Tom Glynn
15 From Voluntary to State Action: Samuel Smiles, James Silk Buckingham and the Rise of the Public Library Movement in Britain
Alistair Black

Bibliography of Secondary Works
This volume will appeal to anyone interested in the history of libraries, books, and reading, and those who have never considered how libraries can inform wider histories of economies, societies, religions, politics, and labour.
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