Wednesday, June 24, 2020

A Glance at Private Libraries by Luther Farnham

The state of New England’s book collections in 1855
A Glance at Private Libraries is an 80-page pamphlet published in 1855 by Luther Farnham, a church pastor, journalist, and theological librarian. The text was originally an address that Farnham gave to the New England Historic-Genealogical Society. He begins his essay by proclaiming that The United States has proven itself equal to Europe in industry, education, and natural beauty. He laments, however, America’s inability to compete with the Old World in one specific area: libraries. Farnham suggests that building up America’s libraries is a necessary step towards elevating the nation’s standards of learning and culture. The public libraries of the time, at least in Boston, could not boast sizable collections, but Farnham finds hope in the libraries of private collectors. In A Glance at Private Libraries, he briefly describes the holdings of many private book collectors in Boston and greater New England.

The book collectors that Farnham profiles include William H. Prescott, author of The History of the Conquest of Mexico; Charles F. Adams, the son of John Quincy Adams; Theodore Parker, the Unitarian minister and Transcendentalist author; and a number of Massachusetts congressmen. The purpose of Farnham’s address seems to be to introduce the gentlemen of the Historic Society to the private libraries of the region, thus facilitating introductions between collectors, readers, and researchers with similar interests. One gets the feeling that, just as in ancient Rome, the only people who really got to enjoy or utilize these libraries are rich white men and perhaps their wives. Eventually, however, most of the materials in these collections likely ended up in the research libraries of America’s colleges and universities, thus fulfilling Farnham’s goal of building robust libraries accessible to the public.

Farnham gives a run-down of the categorical strengths in each library: One collector is big on American antiquity, another collects volumes on medical science, and so forth. At times Farnham also singles out a few of a collector’s most valuable holdings for special attention. If you are a lover of old books and libraries, you’ll find many details of interest, but, like a lot of books on this subject, the writing often reads like a catalog of assorted highlights that can only partially convey the wealth of knowledge contained in these collections. Farnham is acquainted with some of the collectors he profiles and has obviously spent a fair amount of time in their libraries. He also corresponded with other library owners he never met, who responded with written descriptions of their collections. As a result, the libraries that get the most coverage don’t necessarily have the best collections. They’re just the ones with which Farnham has a greater degree of familiarity. Hence, most of the book focuses on Boston libraries, with only brief accounts given of outliers in greater Massachusetts or Connecticut. New Haven’s George Brinley, for example, one of history’s greatest collectors of Americana, only receives a single sentence of mention.

Though limited in scope to New England, Farnham’s pamphlet serves as a sort of state-of-the-union assessment of America’s libraries in the mid-19th century. By importing historic European books and preserving early American texts, private collectors like those Farnham profiles laid the groundwork for America’s great research libraries, thus enriching education, scholarship, and research in the United States. A Glance at Private Libraries may not be the most gripping of reads, but it stands as a valuable historical document of these collectors’ achievements

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