Want to learn more about the first public Library? Read on for an intriguing history, written by Candis Kerns!
In 1732 as Benjamin Franklin set upon founding the first public library in this country, he sent in a book order to London that included dictionaries, grammars, histories, books on science, husbandry and agriculture. The purpose of the library was decidedly secular – the “eternal vigilance” that a democracy requires takes an informed citizenry. It is not surprising, then, that theology books were not part of Franklin’s book order.
What is surprising, however, is that the order did not include novels which were seen by the patriarchal culture as potentially harmful to the suggestible, volatile nature of women. Thomas Jefferson wrote of reading novels as an “ inordinate passion” which constituted “a great obstacle to good education.” Between 1700 and 1779, there was only one novel published in the United States. Yet, women continued to read novels and discuss them. Between the years 1840 and 1849, the demand for novels had grown to such an extent that 765 novels were published. In 1848, Edwin Hubbell Chapin wrote that the mass of novels “has leaped from the press like the frogs of Egypt…with the froth of superficial thinking (and) the scum of diseased sentiment.”
Novels were not a matter of escape but a matter of women discovering the wider world of thought and feeling within themselves and that their friends, their mothers and their daughters could share in this newly found world.