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This database covers institutional and commercial libraries that existed
in what is now the continental United States from the time of first settlement
through 1875. It records nearly 10,000 libraries.
The end-date of 1876 is important because in that year the United State Bureau
of Education published its first comprehensive, national listing of libraries, entitled
Public Libraries in the United States of America: Their History, Condition, and Management.
Special Report. Part. 1 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1876).
This massive work -- 1187 pages -- of facts and statistics began a continuous series of
such like publications
stretching down to the present. See the website of the National Commission
on Libraries and Information Science for the series's list.
The database 'American Libraries Before 1876' extends this series of facts and statistics
back to the first colonial libraries.
Most of the libraries before 1876 were very small, a few hundred books at the most; and most had a very short
active life. Most libraries were membership organizations, which served
the members who provided financing. Even small communities often had
more than one library, each of which served residents of a particular geographical
area; and in cities there also were often several libraries, each of which
served different segments of the population.
The small size of the libraries and their short lifespan means that little
information is available about most of them. Indeed, the record of
the existence of many stems from an almost passing mention or a brief listing.
Many more surely existed, but that likelihood by no means takes away
from the utility of this database. In almost all cases the patterns
that it reveals will continue to stand.
Compilation of the database:
Entries in the database were keyed in at Princeton University from data on
punch cards that had been compiled by Haynes McMullen.
A glance at the punched cards, which have all been scanned, shows that the
database was compiled over decades. In fact, some of the information
was gathered by Jesse Shera, who turned it over to Haynes McMullen.
Although long interested in library history (McMullen's doctoral dissertation
at Chicago was on the history of the University of Chicago Library), the
major effort in gathering the data that is recorded here began in 1951.
That was the year when McMullen left practicing librarianship to become a
library educator. He retired from the library school of the University
of North Carolina.
The scanned cards sometimes provide information additional to that recorded
in the database. In addition, the scanned cards enable the user of
the database to verify information in it. This is especially important
because it has not been possible to proofread the database entries against
On the cards Professor McMullen used the following symbols:
FD (Founding Date): Date of founding
EM (Earliest Mention): Earliest date at which the library is known
to have existed (used only when FD is not known)
ML (Mentioned Last): Latest date at which the library is known to have
been in existence (used only when CE is unknown)
CE (Ceased Existence): Date at which the library ceased to exist
DE (Date Earliest): Earliest date for which the size of the library
(in volumes) is known
SZ (Size): Size at the date given in DE
LD (Latest Date): Latest date for which the size of the library (in
volumes) is known
VS (Size at LD): Size at the date given in LD
Those symbols are used at the head of columns of the database, as well as
on the original cards.
Searching the database:
The researcher can search the database by the fields listed above.
Queries may also be performed by type of library, by state, or by the locality
within a state.
The type-of-library terms are taken, with some additions and changes, from
American Libraries before 1876, by Haynes McMullen (Copyright © 2000
by Haynes McMullen).
Most are the terms are the ones actually used before 1876, although some
are those employed by recent writers on American library history. A
couple of terms have no entries in the database but are listed here because
they surely will one day.
Some researchers may be tempted to argue in certain cases for different terms.
There is, however, benefit to employing here the terms used by McMullen in
his book, for standardization has benefits. McMullen developed them
to try to avoid ambiguity. For example, 'circulating library' is itself
an ambiguous term, applicable to almost all libraries, so McMullen employed
'commercial circulating library' to designate those operated as a business.
It may be, however, that some existing terms will be further subdivided,
and some may be added. Certainly, African American Library should be,
and the scholarship on the topic should be searched to identify information
on the institutions. It may also be desirable to add terms for other
types of institutions of reading, such as book clubs that did not form libraries
but only circulated books among members.
List of terms explained here.
Future of the Database:
Corrections will be made to the database, as will information on additional
libraries. It is possible to conceive of adding more fields, just as
one can imagine moving forward in time. All of that is in the future.
- History of McMullen's work on the data is documented on
these two cards:
evidently record and date his several cycles of compilation and editing.
The PLUS number is an internal control number useful for identifying and updating a record
within the database.