Books in the Public Sphere: New York Libraries and the Culture-Building Enterprise, 1754-1904
Type of DegreeDissertation
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This dissertation examines the role that libraries played in the development of culture during the colonial period and throughout the nineteenth century. Focusing on a group of libraries in New York City, it seeks to explore the various meanings that publicly accessible collections of books held for different groups in American society and in the city of New York at different times. I define culture in terms of values. Culture is a constellation of mutually reinforcing values that are used to define a society or groups within a society. Libraries during this period both reflected and served as a means of actively promoting such values. Generally their development points towards a gradual shift from a republican towards a liberal culture. The republicanism of the revolutionary stressed selfdenying, socially inclusive virtues such as patriotism, piety, and civic duty. Liberalism by contrast emphasized values tied to individual needs or desires, or that tended to set one group of individuals apart from the rest of society. For example, as republicanism slowly waned in the decades before the Civil War, in some libraries the reading of fine literature was used to confirm the elite status of their members. At the same time, conflicts arose over the purchase of popular fiction, in part because it was considered merely a form of private recreation that served no worthwhile public purpose. Republicanism and liberalism were never mutually exclusive, and although republicanism was certainly less influential in the later decades of the nineteenth century, New York’s libraries expressed both republican and liberal culture throughout the century. For example, in the 1880s the city’s free circulating libraries can be seen in part as a republican effort to harmonize a fragmented liberal society. The consolidation of these libraries in the New York Public Library at the beginning of the twentieth century represents a dramatic departure. The founding of the Public Library represents a blending of private and governmental authority and funding. The history of New York’s libraries thus sheds light on changing conceptions of the public sphere.