Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Mr. Thoreau, Libraries, and The Importance of Checking Out Sources

These days, lots of people use snappy quotations in their email signature blocks.  

Some use the words of Transcendentalist thinker and pencil manufacturer Henry David Thoreau.  You know, the “Walden” guy, pictured at left.

A few days ago, I read an email by a properly degreed librarian and certified archivist that contained the following snappy quote, along with the author’s name, in the signature block.  It read: 

"Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries." -- Henry David Thoreau

Wait a minute . . .

There was something about that quotation in the writer’s email signature block that didn’t ring true.   

First off, it was not written in a style that was in any way similar to that 19th century Transcendentalist style of Thoreau’s time. Secondly – and much more important – it was a-historical.

The quotation seems to suggest that Thoreau thought that libraries, -  you know, those “free and open to all” institutions,  -  can “get you through times of no money” which would of course be far better than being rich, but having no access to libraries.

In other words, when there’s no money, there’s always the library.

As far as the lofty thought goes, there’s not much to argue with here, except that “free libraries open to the public at large” were not much of a part of Thoreau’s universe. In fact, because of a simple accident of birth, Thoreau would not have had much experience with using libraries in a time of no money.

You see, he was born too early to have spent much – if any – time in libraries that were free and open to all.

There were, of course, some great libraries in large cities during Thoreau’s time, but they were not free.  They were subscription libraries, with paying shareholders and paying members. Generally, they existed for the almost-exclusive benefit of their paying members.  The occasional visiting (male) scholar was often given temporary on-site privileges at the library,   but local (male) residents were expected to pay for their library privileges. Libraries and money went hand in hand. In times of “no money” there was not much in the way of library access.

Although shareholder-funded libraries and some guild-like “mechanics’ libraries” had been around in North America since the late 18th century, they appealed largely to the well-to-do urban male citizens. Females were permitted few prominent civic roles in the early new republic. Subscription libraries did not admit them as regular members, shareholders or subscribers, although a tiny number of women who had achieved renown as scholars or writers were occasionally given temporary visiting privileges.

Paying male subscribers thought that having women in libraries was, well, unseemly and distracting.  Besides, what could there be in libraries that would have even the slightest interest to women? Plus, aisles were narrow and there were stairs, so women, with their long dresses, would be in constant danger.

Of course, women were not totally left out in the cold.  During the 1830s, the “lyceum movement” got underway in Massachusetts, and lyceum-sponsored “winter lectures” by important public intellectuals were given in cities and small towns in the northeast. Admission was sometimes free, and sometimes not, but still, the lectures were open to all, men and women alike.

The early 19th century was a time of progressive self-improvement, led mostly by educated and civic-minded males in the northeast. It was during this time that the “social library” movement also began, primarily among those well-educated young men in urban areas. 

An early example of this concept, the “Young Mens’ Association for Mutual Improvement in the City of Albany” was established in 1833 and chartered by the New York State Legislature in 1835.  Its founder, Amos Dean, a young Union College graduate (where he had helped establish the Kappa Alpha Society, the nation’s first literary social fraternity) was elected the YMA’s first president and gave one of its first lecture series  - on the “new science” of phrenology. Dean, an Albany lawyer, was also later selected to be the first president (1855 – 1859) of the University of Iowa, running things mostly long distance from his law office in Albany.

(note: I was on the board of the “YMA” [dba the “Albany Public Library”] for lots of years and am currently the archivist and a past president of the Executive Council of the Kappa Alpha Society, so I consider the long-deceased Amos Dean an old friend and mentor)

Similar “young mens’ associations” – all precursors of the modern public library - were established in Troy (1835), Buffalo and Rochester (1836) and Schenectady (1839).

By 1853, the YMA for Mutual Improvement in the City of Albany had more than 1700 members. With a lecture hall with seats for 800 and a reading room stocked with the leading newspapers and periodicals from around the country and from England, the YMA was one of the cornerstones of intellectual life (at least for men) in Albany.  While the library had amassed more than 10,000 volumes, it was hardly the publicly funded library that we think of today when we say “public library”. It had an income of slightly more than $5000 and annual expenses of about $4500.  Its revenue came from the sale of lecture tickets, annual membership subscriptions (originally $2) and voluntary member contributions.  None of it came from public sources. More important, it was still largely a membership organization. 

Many years later, its book collection would become the nucleus of the Albany Public Library. Even though it became a "public" library, it was still - officially - known as the "Young Mens' Association for Mutual Improvement."  Traditions die hard in a city chartered in 1686.

But, during Thoreau’s time, it was a membership institution, open to all  -  at least, "all" with two bucks to spare.

In a word, in 1853, the concept that there would be many libraries that would receive public funding and would therefore be “free to all” was still far in the future. How far?  Much farther in the future than the death of Henry David Thoreau, only nine years later in 1862.  The Boston Public Library, the first publicly-supported library in the United States, chartered in 1848, did not actually open its doors until 1854. Other “free to all” public libraries wouldn’t appear until the end of the century.

Thoreau said and wrote lots of things during his life.  However, a little research showed that, as I suspected, the quote about libraries and money was not his at all, even though it shows up on any number of “official” public library sites and has even made it into their “official” newsletters and publications.  

(second gratuitous note: I am resisting the temptation of linking to all the public library sites that attribute this quotation to Thoreau. It's hard, but I'm doin' it anyway...)

In fact, it’s listed on the authoritative Walden Woods Project’s “Mis-Quotation Page”, second quote from the bottom.  Interestingly, the page gives the history of the mis-attribution and the original source from which it was adapted.  Rather than spoil the fun, I’ll let you check it out for yourself here.

You'll also learn lots more about Thoreau by poking around the Walden Woods Project site.

The takeaway here should be simple, at least for genealogists.  

One: It pays to check out all sources and attributions carefully; not everything is as we would want it to be.   

Two: Lots of stuff on the ‘net is not right.   

Three: even credentialed and certified professionals can be wrong from time to time, especially if they fail to check stuff out carefully, thus “caveat lector.”

Bottom line:  Verify! Verify!  (Yeah, I know - Thoreau said, "Simplify! Simplify", but what the hey!)

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