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Monday, July 27, 2009

Libraries as Agencies of Culture

Rick recently discovered this volume: It's v. 42, n. 3, Fall 2001 of American Studies, and features several essays on libraries as cultural agents.

Most interesting to us is the chapter by Mary and Ronald Zboray, "Home Libraries and the Institutionalization of Everyday Practices among Antebellum New Englanders." It's about the role that personal libraries played in communities with little access to institutional libraries. In antebellum New England it was common for those holding book collections to routinely share the books with their friends, neighbors and acquaintances. Some semi-formalized their lending practices by keeping lists; others made journal entries tracking the social lives of their books. Those who had room enough in their houses to set up their books in a library room opened those spaces as "social libraries" where associates could meet and hang out.

It was interesting that this practice of social library keeping was un-stuck from conventional associations of private librarianship with the wealthy. The many journal entries cited that discuss book lending or library-sharing all emphasize the social over the property value associated with the transaction, and reference very modest collections. Also, the many references make clear that silent, solo reading far from being a main objective of social libraries. The "social" in social libraries refers to the hanging out: spontaneous live read-alouds, discussions about books, and the tea or gossip transactions that were ancillary to the activities of borrowing and lending.

Although the scope of research for this article is restricted to antebellum New England, it becomes obvious upon reading it that the social norms it describes are expressed widely in other times and places. In fact, upon reading it I was reminded of Levi-Strauss' invection to anthropologists to recognize that their discipline is a vocation, not a profession. The impulse to build social libraries is vocational as well. I tried first at age 10 to set up a social library; I set up my books on a display shelf in my room and made lending cards. At the time my social circle wasn't developed enough to really allow anyone to take advantage of the offering, but the impulse persisted.

Our library's social circle is happily too wide to allow us to be a lending library, but the impulse is the same. Having the phrase introduced to my mind through reading this article I can't help but think of us now as a "non-lending social library." --Megan

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