Recently I purchased a 160-page manuscript account of the founding of a private library in Ulster County in December 1810: The Pleasant Valley Library Society.
The account begins with:
A List of the Proprietors Names belonging to the Pleasant Valley Library Society
followed by what at first blush seem to be the records of a library in nearby Dutchess County but turn out to be an effort to establish a library in Ulster County at Plattekill. The articles of incorporation confirm:
“We the subscribers being sensible of the advantages that will accrue from a public library, do for this purpose agree to form ourselves into a society which shall be known by the name of the Pleasant Valley Library in the Town of Plattekill, County of Ulster, . . .”
The bylaws, over the next nine pages, then stipulate how the society will be run and also provide that non-members may borrow books although at somewhat higher rates than the proprietors would be charged. This seems clearly to be an effort at creating a public library through private funding.
The library appears to have been capitalized at one hundred dollars. Individual shares were $5.00 and membership transferrable.
It’s an interesting history that emerges, these records reflecting twelve years of experience – from the original thinking about the establishment of the library, then followed by the experience of the library, in particular the individual borrowing accounts of members. A complete list of the 179 titles available completes the written records – providing an opportunity to see the books on hand by categories such as English philosophy, American history, travel, and poetry. The records run to 1823.
The separate member accounts provide a sense of economic life and individual education attainment in the early 19th century. In southern Ulster county books were scarce and this lending library created to facilitate the efficient sharing of books. The Library Society was small but the underlying spirit strong.
Elsewhere private libraries were providing thousand of books and some, to facilitate their use, published accounts of all titles owned. This Friends Society never achieved any substantial scale and probably never published any records so this account book may be all that will be known about this fledgling enterprise. Even, whether the Society continued beyond the last entries of 1823 is unclear and no mention of this library or any other private library in Ulster County is found in local histories published later in the century.
Interestingly, recurrent issues for borrowers are damage and assessments. Homes of the periods were mainly made of wood and fires too common. So books were occasionally damaged and assessments for repair or replacement carefully recorded. Because the Society kept records of each book’s cost such penalties were easy to determine if not collect.
The cost of the Association’s books is given in the records and they averaged about $1.50 each. Whether new or used is not mentioned, neither are the sources. And no actual copies have been located, neither are there any plans in the organizing plan for Society volumes to be identified in any way. They may have been but I can’t tell.
Libraries in the United States as we know them today emerged in the latter half of the 19th century as America was striving to achieve universal literacy and local governments were raising taxes and organizing school districts to educate their citizens. As this occurred private library associations were subsumed into what would became the American public library movement. This is probably the fate of this early, earnest enterprise.
In an online article on the DPLA [Digital Public Library of America] website there is this bit of history:
“With the rise of non-religious texts and literacy rates in the 1700s, private book clubs among wealthy men evolved into subscription libraries. Subscription, or membership, libraries were funded by membership fees or donations, with collections accessible only to paying members.”
“Today there are fewer than twenty membership libraries in existence in the US—many of which focus on special collections or rare material, rather than a varied book selection . . . “
So, the Pleasant Valley Library Association, organized in 1811, seems to have been a local manifestation of this trend to make books available.
This association would not survive and no other references to it have been found. However, a search of the Rare Book Hub Transaction Database for “library Society” finds 88 records pertaining to other library societies, mostly to printed catalogues of their holdings.
In their time such associations were active and I expect important. They were only a stage, however, apparently caterpillars to what would become in time the butterflies that libraries are today.
As a collecting area the records of such libraries would seem to be a fabulous pursuit.