mercredi 19 janvier 2011

19th Century Libraries in Stanstead Part 1 : Stanstead and Barnston Union Library

Reading books, in a pioneer’s world, does not appear at first glance as an absolute priority. However, there actually was an eager appetite for reading material among the settlers’ population of Stanstead county, as the history of local libraries tends to confirm. Schools had been set up, different religious congregations were convening all over the county, and individual settler families had brought books along with plows and axes : many thought that reading, and literacy in general, was a very desirable necessity. As Benjamin Franklin Hubbard put it in his 1874 book, Forest and Clearings : "Reading in those days was, like study, conducted under difficulties, but it was thorough. Books were read and re-read with attention and profit." [1]

So it was that, along with schoolbooks made available by local traders, "social" libraries sprung up in places from a very early time, all through the 19th century. In this blog series, several of these libraries will be reviewed, starting in the early 1820’s with the Stanstead and Barnston Union Library (ca 1820-1827). Here’s Hubbard again :

Social libraries were started in some of the towns, and were a great benefit. Some of the families of the early settlers had been favored with the advantages of a good English education, and these, in general, furnished teachers for the pioneer schools. Some of these families had brought in a few books, and these were read and re-read throughout the different neighbourhoods. For many years, the Bible, Bunyan’s Pilgrim (etc. …) or Wesley’s Hymns, formed the the entire library of many of the most wealthy families. The old-fashioned toy books, with coarse wood cuts, such as the New England Primer, Jack the Giant Killer (etc. …), were sought for and prized by children and youth of that age… [2]

The notion of a "social" library started off in the first half of the 18th century, when Benjamin Franklin – who held a sizeable personal library of some 4,000 books – started sharing his books with the literate members of his community. Set up as a "subscription" library in 1831, Franklin’s library was incorporated as the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1742. The Library Company, as were later social libraries, based its membership on shareholders, who would contribute money towards the privilege of sharing a collection of books, as well as for the purchase of new holdings. Though all members of this type of social library were required to begin by buying shares, annual fees (and late fees…) were usually charged to members – yet there were quite a number of variants as to what was meant as "social". Indeed, while some libraries focused on making books affordable, others like the "Athenaeum" category were restricted to upper-class readers through prohibitive shares and fees [3].

The first mention of the Stanstead and Barnston Union Library appears as a notice in the British Colonist on December 4th, 1823 : "The Proprietors of the Stanstead and Barnston Union Library, are notified that the next annual meeting will take place at the School House on the Plain, on Saturday the 27th inst. A general attendance is requested. (A. Hibbard, Chairman of Committee)". It is not known when this library was created, but it is likely to have been in place for some years when this notice was published. In the early days of 1824, Librarian S. Brook Jr. calls to "All persons having books belonging to the [Stanstead and Barnston Union] Library, (…) to return them to the Subscriber without delay. Pr order of the Committee" (British Colonist, January 8, 1824).

However, the S & B Union Library appears to be in trouble at the time, since several later notices will lead to the eventual dissolution of the membership. On December 22nd 1825, notice is given that "The Annual Meeting of the proprietors of the Stanstead and Barnston Union Library, will be held at the house of Mr. Amos Ainsden, on Saturday the 31st of Dec. Inst. At 3 o’clock P.M.. The situation of the Library is suche, that it appears indispensable, that the Books are all returned, and a general attendance of the Proprietors is sollicited by the Pro’rs Committee" (British Colonist, December 22, 1825).

Almost a year later, shareholders are again called to attend : « The Stanstead and Barnston Union Library, having for sometime, lain dormant, it is requested that a meeting of the Proprietors be held at the house of Mr. P. Hubbard, on Monday the 14th day of December instant, at 2 o’clock P. M. to adopt such measures as may then and there be thought proper. By order of the committee." (British Colonist, December 7, 1826). Soon after, a new notice : "The Proprietors of Stanstead and Barnston Union Library, are hereby notified that their annual meeting will be held on the last Saturday of this month, at the house of Mr. P. V. Hubbard, at one o’clock P. M., at which it is proposed to dissolve the union, and adopt measures to dispose of the books, and it is further ordered that all who do not attend, may consider their shares forfeited. By order of the Committee." (British Colonist, December 21, 1826).

Clearly, the Library has become more or less inactive, with shareholders neglecting meetings and most likely, shunning the books available. We actually learn, from a last notice in the British Colonist (February 1, 1827), that the S & B Union Library held a total of about 90 books, that the library patrons had probably finished reading by then : "On Monday, the 12th of February next, will be sold at Auction, at the house of Mr. P. V. Hubbard, at 3 o’clock P. M., the whole of the Books, belonging to Stanstead and Barnston Union Library, containing about ninety volumes, the proprietors are hereby notified to attend. By order of the Proprietors. Phineas Hubbard, clerk."

The demise of this first social library in Stanstead would not leave the settlers without books. Other libraries had been developed, such as the Hatley (Charleston) Library – active in 1824 --, but also Sunday School libraries in various churches and Bible Society libraries (including a "Stanstead and Barnston Branch"). Books were prized possessions, and the staple of schools, libraries and churches. Demand was such in the first half of the 19th century, that a printer like Silas Horton Dickerson (publisher of the British Colonist) offered books for sale at his shop as early as 1823 ; and most general merchants of the era, such as James Baxter, John Gillman, Spalding & Foster, Phineas Hubbard, Albert Knight and many others, would compete to offer a ready supply of schoolbooks, as well as Bibles, hymnals and the like — but also a sampling of travel literature, history and classics —, to a steadily growing clientele.

Before the S & B Union Library folded up, other local libraries were initiated. Among these, the Stanstead South-West Quarter Social Library was set up around Griffin Corner, in the Spring of 1823 : the library would last until 1846. This will be the subject of a further posting on this blog.

[1] B. F. Hubbard, Forest and Clearings, 1874, p. 9
[2] B. F. Hubbard, ibid.
[3] See : "How did public libraries get started ?", a staff report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, January 17, 2006; available on the Internet at the following address :

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