American Libraries before 1876

By Haynes McMullen | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Libraries in the Colonial and
Revolutionary Periods

In the area now occupied by the United States of America, libraries appeared on the Atlantic coast and in the Far West at about the same time. The first clear records of an organized collection of books on the East Coast concern the Harvard College Library, formed in 1638. In New Mexico, a variety of books were in private hands as early as 1640. At least two missions had libraries there Sefore the Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1680 drove the Spanish out of the area; after the reconquest in 1692, missions again built collections.1 The settlement of Florida had begun long before, but many records were destroyed during the sloody struggle between Spain and her rivals. There are references to a private library in existence in 1680 and to a library belonging to a convent in St. Augustine around the year 1700.2 No definite record has come to my attention of the existence of any library before the year 1800 in areas occupied by the French.3

The year 1785 has been chosen, somewhat arbitrarily, as the ending date for this chapter. There have been three reasons for this choice: (1) In this book, the establishment of libraries is often compared with the number of people present at various times and places. The United States Census, which began in 1790, gives a more accurate indication of population than the various estimates for earlier years, and it is convenient to compare the number of libraries founded during a ten-year period centered approximately on a census year—for example, libraries founded from 1786 through 1795—to the population in the decennial year 1790. (2) Stopping at that point instead of a few years earlier (before or during the Revolution) makes it possible to show, in this chapter, the extent of disruption to colonial libraries that was caused by the events during the war (from approximately 1775 through 1781) and the effect of the nation's recovery after the war. (3) In most of the area now occupied by the United States, there were no libraries before about 1790, so that is a convenient beginning date for consideration of libraries outside of the eastern states.

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