The main part of this book (chapters 1 through 11) is based on information that I have been able to gather over the last fifty years concerning approximately 10,000 libraries that existed in the American colonies and the United States before 1876, far more collections than any other student of American library history has considered. It is likely that many others existed, and that some of my conclusions about the significance of libraries in American life might have been different if I could have learned about those other collections. However, the main conclusions, based on the characteristics of 10,000 libraries, have not been very different from the ones that I drew some years ago when I was aware of only 6,000. Therefore, I would like to think that if I—or someone else—were to discover information about a few thousand more, there might be noticeably different conclusions about only a few particular kinds of libraries, or libraries in a particular part of the country.
Everything in this book can be considered as an indication of attitudes. Most of the collections of books were assembled because small groups of persons were willing to spend money in order to provide themselves or others with information or with the basis for the exercise of their imaginations. Occasionally, units of government established libraries but, unless the users agreed about the value of those collections, those libraries often withered and died.
Librarians existed throughout the period, but there is little evidence that they had any influence on the life of the collections in their care until about the middle of the nineteenth century. Persons who might be considered as [laymen] simply gathered and made use of whatever kinds of books they wanted.