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General Notes

Overview: 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 the cards.  

Symbols:

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.

Addenda