Small Settlement Ohio Social Libraries on the Connecticut Western Reserve,1800-1900

By: Stuart A. Stiffler

The founding and evolution of numerous stock and subscription libraries on the Nineteenth Century Connecticut Western Reserve in Ohio, draws attention to the contributing role of these earnest enterprises in the transplantation of New England culture onto the Ohio frontier. At a minimum the collections, supplying representative instructional and general literature, supported social mobility and provided educational opportunity and diversion to isolated farms and towns. At least since de Tocqueville’s observations in the 1830s, it has been perceived that when, in the absence of governmental initiatives, a pressing public need should surface, there often followed a compensatory version of American voluntarism. Yet as transitional institutions the social libraries, unlike the common schools and churches, have attracted limited notice in scholarship on the Western Reserve and deserve to be more clearly situated in the Reserve’s nascent cultural life.[1. “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite, Nor only do they have commercial and industrial associations, but they have a thousand other kinds…Americans use associations…to distribute books…” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, translated, edited and with an introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), 89; David L. Sills, “Voluntary Associations–Sociological Aspects,” in Sills and Robert King Merton, eds., The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New York: Macmillan and Free Press, 1991), 16:372-374; for background on the Western Reserve and social libraries: Robert C. Wheeler, “The Literature of the Western Reserve,” Ohio History 100 (1991), 101-128; Kenneth Lottich, “The Western Reserve and the Frontier Thesis,” Ohio History 7 (1971), 45-50; Robert A. Gross and Mary Kelley, eds., A History of the Book in America: An Extensive Republic, Print Society and Culture in the New Nation, 1790-1840 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); L.K. Yankaskas, “Borrowing Culture: Social Libraries and American Civic Life, 1731-1854,” (PhD diss., Brandeis University, 1995); Jesse Shera, Foundations of the Public Library movement in New England, 1790-1855 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 226-230; L.K.M. Rosenberry, The Expansion of New England (New York: Octagon, 1965), 178-194; A.O. Craven, Sources of Culture in the Middle West (New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1934), 39-71; Johann N. Neehm, “Creating Social Capital in the Early Republic: the View From Connecticut,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 34:4 (Spring 2009), 471-495.]

In a spirit of optimism and renewal the town-founders and itinerant missionaries of the New Connecticut projected the virgin landscapes of their new Reserve homes as sites for a replicated spatial and moral order. The elements of this vision included plantations set upon rectangular survey templates, architectonic town planning and building design, and a natural and moral environment viewed through the lens and within the didactic outlines of an overarching theology. A redemptive communal experience, they believed, must thus coalesce in austere simplicity.[2. Amy DeRogatis, Moral Geography: Maps, Missionaries, and the American Frontier (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 14-34.]

I argue, however, that, in the instance of the libraries, almost from the beginning there developed a tension between the founder-managers’ schematic and intellectualized transplantation agenda and the immediate quotidian preoccupations of Reserve settlers. Four of these private membership libraries were prematurely designated “public” at founding and others were soon defunct or qualified as “quasi-public” when founders opened them, as a matter of survival, to non-members on an inexpensive subscription basis. In 1842 the hard-pressed Sandusky Philomathesian Society, a persistent successor of which later offered shares at fifty dollars each, announced that anyone contributing fifty cents might have trial access to their collection for three months. By 1851 the Twinsburgh Public Library had done likewise.

Against the gradual eclipse of a founding elite the romantic individualism of an aspiring middle class became coincident with declining focus upon a cohesive theocratic community and its supporting devotional literature. The demographics of in-migration, improved transportation and an incipient national organization of the book trade contributed to both a liberal expansion of book collections and to a democratic leveling and secularization of taste. The direction of this movement was typified by the drift from provision of titles in the category of the Twinsburgh Library Association’s Sabbath Manual and fifteen-volume Family Evangelical Library, 1851, to the Sandusky Ladies Library Association’s post-war acquisition of exotic travel literature and the plentiful formulaic offerings of favored woman fictionists.

Many authors of the antebellum libraries inventory invoked standard reading themes, often dependent upon the doctrine of sola scriptura, personal applicability of infallible scripture. These themes were subsumed in narrative literature, appearing primarily in the guise of stereotypical heroic motifs detached from explicit theological reference. Library fare promoting the dream of success was commonly evidenced in the post-bellum by proscriptive etiquette and life-conduct guidelines. These identified with a imperative of striving and exercise of inflexible will as necessary agency in the courting, before the community, of republican distinction.

In this context, I endeavor to show, the new reading appealed to a broader spectrum of settlers, as, for example, at the Mentor Library Company, Lake County, and introduced or reinforced mundane themes related to daily living, to piquant curiosities stirred by extended social horizons, to an expanding and prideful nationalism, and to a voluminous literature of compensatory adventure and escapism. Somehow at least peripheral attention to a cultural heritage of classic stimulation survived.

In the process a cohesive mentalité was thus both encouraged and then gradually dissipated by a flood of programmed exhortation in pamphlet-books, newssheets, circulars, reports, almanacs, periodicals and broadsides that in turn served as directed vehicles of more centrifugal popular orientations. There followed, I will indicate, an altered character in the evolving inventories of five representative Western Reserve social libraries.

The Wider Context

Out of the ferment of the times the social libraries sprang up on the Ohio frontier with apparent spontaneity in company with a variety of parallel private associations. Thematic interests of the latter specialized societies typically overlapped with those of the social libraries general literature. Many were supporting collections adjunct to churches, Sunday Schools, Young Men’s Associations, college and college literary societies (eighteen in the Nineteenth Century Reserve settlements), commercial circulating libraries, and lyceums.

Beginning mostly in the mid-1820s and up to 1850 Ohio citizens organized sixty-four lyceums, primarily lecture-sponsoring and other programming initiatives. The lyceums occasionally maintained small collections or merged with social libraries, as at Litchfield, Medina County, 1837, Sandusky, Erie County, 1837 and Painesville, Lake County, 1835, in the Western Reserve. In these localities the libraries then became service addenda to the lyceums and the latter could offer the immediacy of platform presentation to the selective reading of texts.[3. “ALB Database Before 1876,” 2004 http://www.princeton.eduadavpro/ accessed April 10, 2010; C. David Meade, Yankee Eloquence in the Midwest: The Ohio Lyceum, 1850-1870 (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1956), 239-269.]

In addition there appeared collections, lesser in number, allied with an array of group interests. Representative of these were the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ashtabula County, 1831-34; the Oberlin Agricultural and Horticultural Society, 1836- ; the Oberlin Theological Seminary, 1835-1884; the German Methodist Orphan Asylum, Berea, 1866-75; the Firelands Historical Society, Norwalk, 1875- ; the Chardon Progress Women’s Club, 1898- , the Claridon Farmer’s Club, 1860-1867; and the Ottawa County Law Library, 1841-1875.

Another small peripheral group included a number of mercantile and mechanics collections, appealing mostly to enclaves of young clerks and mechanics in Cleveland and the larger Reserve settlements–excepting foundations at Aurora, Portage County, and Chagrin Falls, Cuyahoga County. These were themselves social libraries in their emphases upon fellowship and the supply of popular rather than technical literature.

Social library members designated half of their antebellum libraries simply libraries, social or public libraries (fee-for-service), reading rooms, library-reading rooms, societies, companies or associations. The other half adopted broader designations including young man’s, ladies’ or female reading societies, village or Franklin libraries, together with a stray cooperative library, reading and literary society, natural history and library association, temperance subscription library, study club, moral library, free discussion library, circulating library society (non-commercial), city institution and, at Kent, a railroad reading room. As they evolved, some altered names, using combinations of nomenclature or adding designations of localities or founders. Although their inventories and memberships developed separately, their basic character was more comparable than names suggest.[4. George Jones, “Materials Relating to the Development of Public Libraries in the Western Reserve,” MA thesis, Kent State University, 1957, 11; Haynes McMullen, “ALB 1876 Database”; Stuart Stiffler, “Books and Reading in the Western Reserve: the Small Settlement Social Library, 1800-1860,” Libraries and the Cultural Record 46, number 4, (2011), 388-411.]

By Mid-Century the U.S. Census estimated only one and one-half percent of Reserve citizens illiterate, two and one-half percent lower than the remainder of the Ohio population. Even as family reading aloud was common in the early settlements, a few of the libraries, operating as literary or debating societies supported fulfillment and, rather than serve as limited repositories, were distinctly social in character. They could combine spirited discussion and socializing with related reading from their collections. Business and anecdotal chat of domestic and occupational affairs might mix with spirited forays into literary texts and current public issues.[5. J.D.B. DeBowe, U.S. Census Office 7th Census, 1850, The Seventh Census of the United States: 1850 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1851), 810-811, 860; Kenneth Carpenter, “Libraries,” Encyclopedia of American Culture and Intellectual History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2001), III, 370.]

Social Reading Stations

As Eastern migration onto the Reserve increased, by the 1840s abandoned farmsteads were reported as dotting the Connecticut countryside. With this influx of settlers more social libraries per capita emerged in the Midwest than in other areas of the United States. By the 1850s new libraries were appearing at four times the rate of Ohio population growth and the multiplication of Western Reserve publication product exceeded the increase of population by more than ten times. Reserve inhabitants, ninety-six percent rural, had increased by a third between 1830 and 1840, destined to be the largest decennial percentage increase on the Nineteenth Century Reserve. It followed that during the decennial of the 1840s the aggregate of students enrolled in the Reserve common schools increased 150%. Against this tableau the 1830s witnessed the appearance of forty-five social libraries and the 1840s and 1850s added an additional twenty-four, accounting for 107 in the antebellum. A population base of about twenty per square mile had become receptive to a marked increase in collection numbers.Clearly we see emerging a compelling minority thirst in the settlements for the stimulus of print resources (Table I).[6. DeBowe, U.S., Seventh Census, 810-811; Haynes McMullen, American Libraries before 1876 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000); Jarvis Means Morse, A Neglected Period of Connecticut’s History, 1818-1850 (New Haven: Yalen University Press, London: H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1933); E.A. Miller, “History of Educational Legislation in Ohio, 1803-1850,” Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly 27 (1914), 198-207; U.S. Department of the Interior. Bureau of Education. Public Libraries in the United States, Their History, Condition and Management, Special Report, Pt. 1 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1876), 186; D.V. Martin, “A History of the Library Movement in Ohio,” MA thesis, The Ohio State University, 1934.]

The priority attending these early print repositories on the Western Reserve is underlined by a comparison with the neighboring Pennsylvania experience. Excluding thirty libraries in the heavily settled Philadelphia area, half of newly established collections awaited population densities of at least ninety per square mile. Acknowledging fully the longevity and distinction of a few like Benjamin Franklin’s path-breaking Philadelphia Library Company, 1731, we can note that there were 173 social libraries organized in Pennsylvania from 1731 to 1875, measured against some 330 in Nineteenth Century Ohio, nearly half on the Western Reserve. Further, the high tide of Ohio library foundation anticipated by some twenty years that of the earlier settled Keystone State.[7. Haynes McMullen, “Founding of Social Libraries in Pennsylvania, 1731-1876,” Pennsylvania History 31 (1975), 13-52.]

The antebellum Reserve libraries–notably excepting those at Tallmadge, Wadsworth and Hudson– mostly deferred to patriarchal leadership. By the Eighties and Nineties, however, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and an upsurge of women’s literary clubs had assumed a significant contributing role in both initiating their own small libraries and promoting the founding of a growing number of social and free public collections. Most of the former contained selections from a menu of temperance fare in the style of Timothy Shay Arthur’s cautionary Temperance Tales or Samuel Hastings’ populist confrontations, The People versus Liquor Traffic. Typical of the times, in May 1883, organizers held a special meeting of the Jefferson, Ashtabula County W.C.T.U. in the Town Hall for the purpose of starting a library association. Prior to 1897 the Lorain W.C.T.U. sponsored a subscription library of “a few hundred volumes.” In October 1900 a Library and Reading Room operated briefly before the advent of the Lorain Public Library. By 1904 the National Federation of Women’s Clubs was claiming the organization of 474 American public libraries.[8. Untitled document, (Special Meeting Minutes, Jefferson, Ohio W.C.T.U., May 24 1882), archives of the Henderson Memorial Library, Ashtabula, Ohio; Margaret Deming, “History of the Lorain Public Library, Aug. 18, 1903,” accessed Jan. 20, 2010; Ruth Bordin, “The Baptism of Power and Liberty, the Women’s Crusade of 1873,” Ohio History (Autumn 1975), 303-304.]

Some 568 libraries were founded in Ohio up to 1900 and, of these, 253, or forty-five percent, were located in fourteen Western Reserve counties, or partial counties, which comprised, however, only about thirteen percent of Ohio counties and land area. Further, 128 were social libraries in the smaller communities (excluding Cleveland, Akron, Warren, and Youngstown, which deserve separate attention). Through 1900 Ashtabula County alone, nearest incoming migration, accounted for twenty-three settlement collections.

In contrast to Ashtabula’s libraries, in the three Ohio Counties immediately south and west of the Eastern counties of the Reserve, an area with many more German farmers than New England settlers, a minimal eight social libraries appeared during the Nineteenth Century. Overall more collections are recorded in the Western Reserve than in the combined whole of Indiana and Illinois and more in Ashtabula County alone than in all of Michigan. Moreover, the compulsive contagion of precedent during the period was such that citizens in seventeen Western Reserve towns sponsored two or more societies, occasionally coexisting; seven, three or more; and Sandusky, seven.

In five Pennsylvania counties on the eastern border of Ashtabula County six libraries appeared up to 1876. Between 1820 and 1880 the foundation of small settlement collections in seven eastern counties of the Reserve multiplied fivefold and well in advance of population.

For newly settled country it appears, then, that there was a remarkable stirring of literary interest in certain areas of the Reserve. William Dean Howells, whose father operated a print shop in the 1830s at Jefferson, Ashtabula County, later recalled that “village folk were in a degree I still think extraordinary, literary. Old and young they talked about books . . . Any American author who made an effect in the East became promptly known in that small village of the Western Reserve.”[9. William Dean Howells, Years of My Youth and Three Essays (Bloomington, Indiana and London: Indiana University Press, 1990), 92.]

Conjecture that the sum of social library foundations in the West were reliably dependent upon levels of settlement prosperity rather than upon cultural factors—religion, education, ethnic composition of population, towns, political context, social psychology—must be carefully qualified. In 1860 and 1870, for example, combined average real estate wealth was 64% higher in the three Ohio counties mentioned above, with many fewer collections, than the estate wealth of the Reserve’s adjacent Ashtabula County with its twenty-three foundations. Although there were many fewer social libraries founded in the Reserve after 1860, the valuation of real and personal estates increased by eighty-seven percent in the decennial of the 1860s.[10. “ALB Database, 1876,” University of Virginia Historical Census Browser, “Valuation of Real Estate, County Level Results,” 1860 and 1870, Ashtabula County and average for Columbiana, Stark (including city of Canton), and Wayne Counties, Ohio, http://mapservice.lib.virginia/edu/php, accessed March 20, 2010.]

The stock and subscription (social) libraries were much the most numerous of some forty library type-categories in Ohio identified by social libraries historian Haynes McMullen, followed, prior to 1876, by college and college literary societies and by about ten authentic public institutions. Two-thirds of the Reserve libraries originated in the antebellum when the impulse to social construction of the moral self increasingly began to flourish and antecedent to the constrictive diversion of war mobilization and the burgeoning materialism of the Gilded Age.[11. “ALB Database, 1876”; Stiffler, “Books and Reading.”]

In the latter half of the Century a more limited twenty-four societies ranged from the Painesville Library Association, 1867, and the Mentor Library Association, 1875, to the Young Men’s Reading Room at Lorain, 1900. Although libraries at Mentor and Ashtabula each persevered for some thirty years, I have found the documented life span of fourteen Reserve collections to average fourteen years. It is probable that the life span of the totality, however, extended on average to fewer than three or four years.

Joining and Gathering

Participation in the libraries fluctuated but membership corresponded roughly to that of New England foundations at comparable stages of development. As population increased, the four antebellum libraries, ranging from seven to eighty, averaged forty members. Single memberships often extended borrowing privileges to families, and complimentary service could sometimes be offered, as at Cuyahoga Falls, to a few non-members. Membership of four documented post-bellum small settlement libraries, 1865-1900, ranged from 49 to 400, averaging 181. And yet in 1850 Reserve rural membership in all the libraries probably stood at but two to three percent of the citizenry.[12. DeBowe, Seventh Census, 860; J.F. Low, “A History of the Cuyahoga Falls Library and the Taylor Memorial Association,” MSLS thesis, Western Reserve University, 1955.]

A comprehensive socio-economic profile of Reserve social library patrons remains beyond reach but that of the 1825 and 1834 Mentor Library memberships is advisory. Comparison of samples of tax duplicates of Mentor members for these years with random sampling of other residents of Geauga County indicate that the median valuation of membership wealth–land and personal property–was over twice that of other sampled county residents. This was presumably related to education levels and available leisure. Nonetheless, by the Mid-Thirties the span of property valuation within the membership group had decreased markedly. (The narrowing of wealth distribution in both the membership and random County groups reflected largely the subdivision of original estate holdings). Overall both an expansion of scope and a reductive leveling in the quality of collections seems to indicate a middle-class alteration of reading habits on the Reserve and is subsequently reflected, as I will indicate, in library inventories.[13. Edward Stevens, “Relationship of Social Library Membership, Wealth and Literary Culture in Early Ohio,” Journal of Library History 16 (Fall 1981), 571-591 and Stevens, “Books and Wealth on the Frontier,” Social Science History 5 (Fall 1981), 434.]

Volume counts in the majority of the Reserve collections are also uncertain but the modest but persistent growth of several of the libraries suggests an active disposition to reading (Table II). When initial enthusiasms waned, patronage could fall off sharply, as at Norwalk, Huron County and Wellington, Lorain County. In the decade after the Wellington Library Association’s opening in 1874 the collection increased by 31% to 1812 volumes while annual circulation dropped by half to 4584. Numbers of volumes for twenty Reserve collections recorded at various points in their life-spans indicate average holdings of 286 for eight antebellum collections and 1,580 for twelve post-bellum libraries. In comparison, 172 antecedent Connecticut social libraries had averaged, in 1819, with one larger collection excepted, 165 volumes.[14. “ALB Database, 1876”; Yankansas, “Borrowing Culture,” 6, 17; “Wellington Library Association Meeting Notes,” Sept., Oct. 1873, May 1874, May 1885, and Wellington Enterprise, Feb. 17, 1886, quoted in Tracie Marie Dalton, “The Herrick Memorial Library: A Historical Study,” Masters Research Paper, Kent, Ohio: Kent State University, 1998, 13-14, Educational Information Research Center, ED $424864; Stiffler, “Books and Reading.”]

As a matter of survival a number of the social library officers designated their collections “public” indicating that they had been made accessible to all on a fee-for-service basis, this typically distinguishing them from the more elite urban Eastern clubs and athanaea.

Shaping and Striving

An accurate and complete account of the social libraries, descended from English institutions dating to the early Eighteenth Century, is rather obscured by the scarcity of documentation. Acts of the Ohio General Assembly of 1817, 1831 and 1839 were intended to loosely regulate literary and other educational societies and, incidentally, to affix the corporate legal model onto the private sector.

An Ohio law of 1845 further provided that societies and other “benevolent associations” were to elect not fewer than three of their members as trustees and one as clerk. Library constitutions thereafter generally specified election of a president, vice president, treasurer, and, as clerk, a secretary or a secretary-treasurer. A librarian, at whose home meetings were often held, was also designated by memberships. He/she functioned mainly as caretaker-manager. At Norwalk the office was dubbed “janitor-librarian.” At Cuyahoga Falls the position was endowed at $12 a quarter and eventually, in 1883, at a “very liberal” annual $100 for eight hours a week.[15. First Catalogue of the Young Men’s Library and Reading Room of Norwalk, Ohio, Established 1866, Norwalk, Ohio, Firelands Historical Society; J.F. Low, “A History of the Cuyahoga Falls Library and the Taylor Memorial Association.”]

Organizational meetings mandated by-laws to supplement and interpret new constitutions. These generally scheduled periodic meetings–typically annual or quarterly–or provided for special meetings at which times members voted upon issues presented by trustees or executive committees and collections might be briefly opened for borrowing. Scarcity of book stock in the early days was such that at some locations, such as the Jefferson Public Library, Ashtabula County, members in turn placed bids upon volumes until each had rented a book.

The town libraries and reading rooms were often situated, as at Mrs. Plummer’s Wadsworth, Medina County, millinery shop, in a store on the main street or in professional or government offices. At Medina for a decade after 1877 a series of store owners were offered $10 to $25 a year for library-hosting duties. In three instances–in Ashtabula, Lorain, and Huron Counties–multiple town or township mini-regions cooperated in supporting a single collection, a procedure which, had it been more widely followed, might have provided a more stable financial base for the collections.

Rather than chosen by consensus, books were selected by patriarchal trustees, executive or book committees or by an especially esteemed member. Article III of the Constitution of the Jefferson Public Library declared that “the Trustees shall determine what books are to be added into the library either by purchase, donation or otherwise.” Article eight of the By-Laws of the Circulating Library Society of Willoughby (a social library), 1871, specified an annual election of three members to a Library Committee charged with quarterly reporting on books selected for the collection. Frequently gift volumes were solicited which tended to diffusion of content but might on occasion be credited as membership dues.

Even as in the elite Eastern clubs, constitutions could prescribe multiple voting based upon numbers or value of stock subscribed. Shares of this transferable stock were offered, usually at $2 or $3 each, with annual subscription fees typically set at $.25 to $1. A special prestige may have attached to membership in the Sandusky Ladies Library Association, which, in 1874, projected a capital stock of 2000 shares at $50 each. Something of the intense spirit that could attend planning of these fledgling enterprises is evident in the Norwalk Young Men’s Library By-Laws specification that “a permanent fund shall be established and securely invested in securities of the United States … or in real estate, for the use of the association.”

Occasionally members levied special assessments for book stock, cataloging or expensive furnishings. In later years a number of the Reserve’s social libraries–Norwalk, Sandusky, Lorain, Cuyahoga Falls, Kinsman and probably others–were beneficiaries of a developing American tradition, the volunteer charitable fund-raiser. Evolving with panache, these lively spectacles became spirited endeavors encompassing lecture series, bake-sales, musicals, exhibitions, plays, ice-cream socials, suppers, “excursions,” “illustrated song concerts” and, possibly the apogee of the kind, the Sandusky Ladies Library Association’s memorable variety shows, expansively-styled Grand International Jubilee, 1874 and Grand Cosmorama, 1891.[16. Eleanor Ilse, ed., Wadsworth, Center to City (Wadsworth High School Class of 1938), 154; Circulating Library Society of Willoughby, “By Laws,”, accessed Dec. 27, 2010; Willoughby Herald, Aug. 6, 1909; Untitled Document, (Prospectus and Articles of the Ladies Library Association, Dec. 1874), Sandusky, Ohio, Sandusky Library and Archives Center, Sandusky, Ohio: Sandusky Register, Jan. 13, 1874; Sandusky Daily Register, April 3, 1891; Sandusky Star, April 3, 1891, quoted in F.G.B. Moss, “The Evolution of the Sandusky Public Library,” Firelands Pioneer 13 (Dec. 1900), 657-658; Mentor Library Company, “Record Book, 1819,” 9-11; John R. Pankratz, “New Englanders, the Written Word and the Errand into Ohio,” Ph.D diss., Cornell University, 1988, 225-237; John Galbreath, Sketches of Ohio Libraries (Columbus: F.J. Herr, 1902), 228-230.]

The libraries adopted a schedule of service fees and explicitly proscriptive circulation rules (thus, for example, a fine of three cents for folding a corner or creasing a page and six and one-quarter cents for “doubling” the page). Regular accessibility to collections might be established at a few hours a week– six hours weekly at Cuyahoga Falls, and afternoons at Geneva. Daily and evening hours, except Sundays, were announced at Twinsburg, 1851 and, at Norwalk, 1865. The Wellington Library, organized in 1874, also opened in the afternoons, except Sunday, “no smoking, spitting or loud conversation allowed.”[17. Low, “Cuyahoga Falls”; “Kinsman Library Website,”, accessed Dec. 10, 2009; Geneva Library print catalog, 1894, cited in Jones, “Materials,” 48; First Catalogue of Norwalk Library, 1877Twinsburgh Library Catalogue, 1851 (Cleveland: D. Smeed, 1851); “Wellington Meeting Notes,” April, May 1873, quoted in Dalton, “Herrick Library,” 18-20.]

The Evolving Scene

Reserve settlers organized the first small settlement library at Hudson in 1800. Arriving from Connecticut in June, David Hudson brought with him $100 worth of books reputedly selected by Yale President Timothy Dwight. Memberships were sold in shares and, it was reported, nearly every family in Hudson and neighboring Aurora and Mantua, Portage County, bought one or more. The volumes were located in Hudson’s house in 1807 where a later observer judged them “very useful in forming the morals and enlightening the minds of the youth of these settlements.” In 1805 the Reverend David Bacon somehow imported 651 religious works to the Reserve from Connecticut. When early founder Elizur Wright arrived in 1808 he contributed to the Library a Bible, Solomon Stoddard’s Safety Appearing to the Righteousness of Christ, Samuel Wright’s Treatise on Being Born Again and Thomas Shepard’s Sound Believer. In 1803 itinerant missionary-warrior Joseph Badger, on a mission in Ashtabula County to preach and distribute Connecticut Missionary Society literature out of his saddlebags, found himself treed overnight by a bear. He persevered in later years in scattering a blizzard of tracts over the Reserve, opened a short-lived bookstore at Ashtabula, and was responsible for organizing a social library in southern Ohio.

In Orangeville, near the Pennsylvania border in Ashtabula County, settler Elam Jones, having transported a few volumes from Connecticut in 1805, organized a collection and served for some years as librarian. Little sagas of the perilous missionary delivery of books (symbolic culture) from the East in wagon or ox-cart, as also at Olmsted and Hudson, could linger in the manner of recurring tropes of “errand into the wilderness.”

Members founded a library at Poland, now Mahoning County, in 1807 and a reading room followed in 1826. Tallmadge, now Summit County, established a township library of seventy volumes in 1813, three years after the first school. Two years later a “Society of Women for Literacy,” possibly the first women’s organization on the Western Reserve, appeared. At Hudson founder Elizur Wright’s daughter, Clarissa, gathered in 1828 an unusually sizeable Sunday school library of 300 volumes. The Tallmadge Library Association finally incorporated a society in 1845.[18. Joseph Badger, A Memoir of the Rev. Joseph Badger (Hudson, Ohio: Sawyer Ingersoll Co., 1851), 23, 55, 57; Charles Cook Bronson, The Bronson Book: account of the establishment of the early Connecticut Western Reserve (Stowe?, Ohio: 1954), quoted in Jones, “Materials,” 5; J.F. Waring, Books and Reading in Hudson, 1800-1954 (Hudson, Ohio: Hudson Library and Historical Society, 1954), 8-10; American Quarterly Register, 1841, 13: 325-326; W.W. Williams, A History of Ashtabula County (Philadelphia: Williams Bros., 1878), I, 89; John Hall, “A History of the Township of Ashtabula, 1856,” 612, mss #64, Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio; E.O. Randall, “Tallmadge Township,” Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly 27 (1929), 299; Pankratz, “New Englanders,” 183-184.]

The Mentor Library Company was organized in February 1819. Capital stock was limited to twenty-five hundred shares at $2.50 each and a share enabled the holder to one vote at the election of officers. Eventually the Company distributed fifty-nine shares totaling $159.50 for a start-up collection, in the range of $2,200 today. The membership reached fifty in 1839 and sixty-seven at its demise in about 1852. Borrowers could withdraw one book at a time for each share held. In addition each was assessed twenty-five cents annually. The original shareholders also came from Willoughby, Kirtland, Chester and Painesville and indicate how the service areas of collections sometimes included neighboring communities.[19. Mentor Library Company, “Record Book”; “ALB Database, 1876”; Stiffler, “Books and Reading.”]

The intermittent career of many of these sporadic endeavors appears at Painesville, Lake County, where the Painesville Telegraph advertised early in 1822 that books were for sale at its office. At the end of the year a notice appeared of a sale of unsold titles. Two years later, the first library, the Library Company of Painesville was organized. This establishment too seemingly self-destructed within the year and the Telegraph announced that about forty books were to be auctioned. Two short-lived commercial circulating libraries followed before 1841. In 1848 Aristarchus Champeon, philanthropist and temperance crusader, opened a large building in Chagrin Falls which he designated Library Hall and stocked with 800 volumes. A Literary Association, founded in 1842, added their collection but Champeon sold his building to the Board of Education in 1849 and removed his books.[20. Painesville Telegraph, June 11, 1823; Sept. 7, 1824; March 4, 1844; Cleveland Whig, Sept. 1 1847; Painesville Lyceum and Library Society, Incorporation, Ohio Laws, 33, 197 (1835); Jones, “Materials,” 61-62; Crisfield Johnson, History of Cuyahoga County (Cleveland: D.W. Ensign and Co., 1879), 430; Stiffler, “Books and Reading.”]

The abode of the libraries often migrated short distances subject to space availability, continuity of interest and financial support. Members of the Kinsman Library, Trumbull County, and the Milan Township Library, Erie County, each transported their collections to five different sites prior to the advent of their public libraries. At Kinsman in 1885 organizational publicity, couched in a boostering rhetoric and an ethos of progressive advance, proclaimed a Village Improvement Association.

The Kinsman library enrolled a remarkable 161 members, each assessed dues of $1 a year. In 1885 a back room in the original post office building served as housing. Soon the collection moved to “an upstairs room in the Henry Building at the corner of East and Main St.,” and, subsequently, to the Grand Army of the Republic Building, also known as the Science Hill Academy. At the library’s demise in 1893 library-supporter Frank Banning packed books into storage, presumably in anticipation of a possible resurrection. In 1903 a library room traveled to the Centralized School basement where it remained until 1910, when it was transferred to the Kinsman Spencer High School Building.

Continuity in the motivational drive underlying early collection building is suggested by assertions of anticipated “improvement,” “profitable” progress and social utility introduced into the charters and constitutions of two of the earliest New England libraries and later copied into those of several projected Reserve collections. The “Articles of the Book Company of Durham October 30, 1737 (Connecticut)” and the “Covenant of the Philogromatic Society of Lebanon Connecticut, 1739” summoned members’ attention to “occupying our leisure hours in employing our minds in useful and profitable knowledge by reading” and by subscriber’s accumulation of the “useful and profitable books [ of a ] “Common Library” for [ Coventor’s ] use and improvement.”[21. Shera, Foundations, Appendices I and II, 248, 251; “Kinsman Library Website,”, accessed April 10, 2010; Catalog of Books Belonging to the Milan Township Library of Milan, Ohio (Milan, Ohio: Milan Ledger Print, 1894); Jones, “Materials,” 8; Untitled, (“Constitution of the Jefferson Library, 1817”), Article III, Sec. 3rd; Circulating Library of Willoughby, “By-Laws”; Northridge Literary Society. “Catalog of Books, Rocky River, Ohio, 1877.”, accessed Dec. 11, 2010.]

It followed that the preamble to the Reserve’s Jefferson Public Library Association’s Constitution, 1817, stated a desire “to obtain that information for ourselves and others which would be of our mutual advantage and improvement” and Article Five of its Constitution, specifies that “books to be purchased for the library shall be at least two-thirds of them historical and that novels or obscene books shall not be admitted.” The post-bellum Reserve societies apparently relaxed similar provisions but in 1877 the Rocky River Library Society still thought it advisable to specify that “nothing but the cleanest and most wholesome books” might be considered for acquisition–and nationally the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1883 established a last stance “Department for the Suppression of Impure Literature.”

The 1885 Constitution of the Kinsman Village Improvement and Library Association specified its avowed mission “to exact an elevating and refining influence upon the village members and community“–that is, to promote civility and civic integration through cultivation of “character.” Founding members charged an elected three-member Library Committee of the Willoughby Circulating Library with inquiring into and clearly reporting upon the evaluated moral status of applicants for membership; further, fully a three-fourths vote of members was then demanded for admittance.

Committed individuals or small coteries of the civic-minded and culturally informed, commonly but little known outside their local orbits, initiated libraries in a number of communities. Such valued neighbors were instrumental in organizing collections at Painesville, Milan, Kingsville, Kent, Lorain, and probably at other settlements. An exception to the “little known” tag was the self-effacing American poet-educator, Edward Rowland Sill, organizer of the Cuyahoga Falls Library Association. A trace of the estimable elan of the early pioneers is captured in Sill’s plaintive comment that “I’m getting up a village aid society–awful weather for poor people without even potatoes or blankets…Also making a new campaign for my struggling village library.”[22. Undated letter (about 1866), quoted in William Belmont Parker, Edward Rowland Sill, His Life and Work (Boston and New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1915), 301; Jones, “Materials,” 11; Circulating Library Society of Willoughby, “By-Laws”; Kinsman Library Website; Untitled, (“Constitution of the Jefferson Library”); Northridge Library Society, Rocky River, Catalog.]

Vehicles of Intelligence and Dispersal

The Puritan stress upon functional literacy for Bible and devotional reading and the example of the Connecticut newspapers in monitoring the fortunes of Reserve settlement encouraged newspaper subscription. Some 150 papers were established in Ohio before 1850. As a result only two States, New York and Massachusetts, had by this date more weekly papers.

In thirteen library settlement towns in seven eastern Reserve counties between 1820 and 1900 country publishers or editors commenced at least sixty-five pioneer weekly papers. In the eastern Reserve there were one or more papers in each of the settlement library towns, (in 1850 for an average of about one for every 9,000 persons), in half of the eighty years between 1820 and 1900 and these numbers increased in the latter of this period. The coverage of local weeklies could also be extended by importing the newssheets of neighboring towns.

The printing press came to Cleveland by 1818 and paper-manufacture by 1850. After the 1850s the advance of printing technology, the subsidization of postage rates, an incipient organization of the national book trade and the advent of rail transportation into Ohio began to broaden the scope and improve access to Eastern publication. By 1878 the newspapers of the Norwalk Young Men’s Library numbered ten dailies from six cities stretching from Cleveland, Toledo and Terre Haute to New York City.

In mobilizing opinion this raw frontier journalism, circumscribed as it was, did not so much report local affairs as it promoted citizen’s visions of wider imagined horizons through snippets of regional, national and even much-delayed foreign news. The papers could combine expressive typography with folksy vernacular advertisements and considerable partisan and miscellaneous exchange materials. In addition they might on occasion initiate community literacy campaigns before the wider spread of the common schools. Blanketing the Western Reserve from east to west, in reading rooms and in isolated households, taverns and print shops, frequently with little other reading matter at hand, there might be found a few tattered copies of the Conneaut Reporter,the Burton Geauga Leader, the Ravenna Star, the Chagrin Falls Farmers and Mechanics Journal, the Wadsworth Enterprise, the Elyria Constitution, the Milan Advertiser, the Norwalk Reflector, the Sandusky Commercial Register and a mosaic of comparable newssheets.

In the antebellum period an inundation of nationally published almanacs surfaced including about fifty titles of these eccentric and catch-all “weekday Bibles” issued on the Reserve itself. These latter were in the style of the Christian Almanac for the Western Reserve, Ohio, 1837 (Cleveland, 1836); The Western Reserve Almanac . . . for Northern Ohio and the Lake Country Generally (Cleveland, 1844); and E. L. Gibbs’ The Farmer’s Western Reserve Almanac (Cleveland, 1850). Further, from 1790 to 1850 more than 170 broadsides and 300 books flowed directly to readers out of at least 101 print shops active at some time during this period in the Reserve small settlement library towns. Accordingly, for a recently settled area an amazing plenitude of books, newspapers, magazines, broadsides and ephemera found their way into rural cabins, churches and libraries. An 1835 emigrant’s guide noted of the Reserve that already “temperance reports, tracts, almanacs and newspapers are everywhere and resistance seems to be dying.”[23. Morgan Library of Ohio Imprints and Richard Parker Morgan, 1999 Ohio Imprints, 1796-1850 (Ohio: Morgan Library of Ohio Imprints),, accessed Dec. 10, 2010; Joseph F. Kett, The Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties: From Self-Improvement to Adult Education in America, 1750-1990 (Standford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 45-47; D. Griffiths, Jr., Two Years in the New Settlements of Ohio with Directions to the Emigrant (London: Wesley and Davis, 1835), 130; Frederick Jackson Turner, The United States, 1830-1850 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1935, 1963), 343-344; Pankratz, “New Englanders,” 24.]

Settlers established small settlement reading rooms, sometimes antecedent to expanded libraries and limited at first to magazines and newspapers, at Painesville, Sandusky, Wadsworth, Kent, Poland, Kingsville, and Orville and possibly at other locations. These rooms existed as small lounge areas in homes or businesses with a few seats, tables and limited amenities. The early reading room at Poland, 1826, looking outward, subscribed to the Pittsburgh Gazette, the Cleveland Herald, the American Farm, the National Journal and the New-York Advertiser. The Painesville Library Society began its collection in 1841 with twenty-five periodicals; the Sandusky Ladies Library Association subscribed to twenty-nine magazines in 1871 and, by 1868, the Norwalk Young Men’s Library was claiming “over sixty” newspapers and periodicals. The Norwalk subscriptions encompassed religion, temperance, science and opinion magazines, British reviews, ladies’ and children’s magazines and, for public and practical affairs, the National Prohibitionist, the American Whig Review, 1852-54, and the progressive agricultural and craft magazine, Plow, Loom and Anvil, 1852-54. The Norwalk library, in fact, held nearly twice the number of journal files as did, nine years later, the Cleveland Library Association, 1865, with overall twice Norwalk’s print resources.[24. First Catalogue of Norwalk Library, 1877Cleveland Library Association Catalogue, 1865; “Minutes of a Meeting held in the village of Poland for the purpose of establishing a reading room, 1826,” Western Reserve Historical Society, WRHS Doc. #2126, quoted in Jones, “Materials, 32-33; Sandusky Ladies Library Association, Catalogue, 1877, Sandusky Library and Archives Center, Sandusky, Ohio.]

From surviving intelligence it appears consensus on suitable magazines for a pioneer social library was not reached in these early years. The eminent clergyman and educator Alonzo Potter’s competent selection guide, Handbook for Readers and Students intended as a help . . . to associations . . . in the selection of reading, (Harpers, 1843), acquired by the Twinsburg Library, listed twenty-five magazine titles Potter considered indispensable ranging from the Edinburgh Review and the Niles Register to Blackwood’s Magazine. But only the venerable North American Review and the compendious American Almanac appear on the collective subscription lists of Twinsburg, Sandusky and Norwalk.

In his Handbook Potter further introduced a number of controlling “Principles of Selection,” the first of which specified gruffly that “works of mere fiction should be excluded”; that is, those which “excite and arouse rather than improve taste, enlarge knowledge or strengthen virtuous principle. It is believed that this is the case with a very large percentage of what are usually called novels” and in his magisterial handbook, Books and Reading, concurring Yale President Noah Porter stiffly agreed that “the reading of novels is the chief occupation of a certain class of persons who are exempt from the usual claims of business or study…”[25. Potter, Handbook for Readers, 125; Noah Porter, Books and Reading: or, Which Books Shall I Read and How Shall I Read Them, 4th ed., (New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1877), 220.]

Nevertheless the widespread debut of intoxicating serial fiction in a number of general magazines, such as the popular New York LedgerHarpers, and Peterson’s Magazine, began to rival in readership the already abundant fictional offerings in conventional book format. Charles Dickens’ imported All the Year Around led with long serial fiction and Porter’s Spirit of the Times, in the Norwalk library, added sports reporting and humor. Although they were known, there is finally little evidence that Potter’s Handbook, Porter’s Books and Reading or Harvard librarian Thaddeus M. Harris’ seminal Select Catalog of Some of the Most Esteemed Publications in the English Language Proper to form a Social Library, 1793, were ever adopted as qualitative controls in the assembling of collections.[26. Patricia Okken, Social Stories: the Magazine Novel in Nineteenth Century America (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003.]

Directions of Reading and Thinking

J. R. Pankratz, Western Reserve reading and print culture scholar, has assessed the general context of a postulated early Western Reserve reading psychology. He characterizes the Reserve reader’s approach to print as personally applicable in the Puritan tradition, and further conditioned by the separation of backwoods isolation, by inclination to narcissistic introspection and by reproduced identifications, in a communal setting, of socially approved moral behaviors. The content of the literature in six antebellum and five post-bellum print book catalogs, analyzed below within this conceptualization, thus both helped to shape and to mirror aspects of the evolving mental world of an influential minority of Reserve citizens.[27. Pankratz, “New Englanders,” 225-237; Barbara Sicherman, “Ideologies and Practices of Reading,” in Scott E. Casper et al., eds., A History of the Book in America, vol. 3, The Industrial Book, 1840-1880 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 279-302.]

Of titles published in Ohio before 1820, about one-third treated religion and one-tenth literature and the arts. Supplemented by Eastern books and imports from England, subject distribution in the Reserve collections was gradually distinguished by a concentration upon history/biography/religion, travel and, increasingly, upon popular fiction. There was limited attention to science and the fine arts and little representation of the ancient classics or the European literary canon. An approximation of antebellum subject distribution in six libraries became: one-third, history and biography; one-quarter, religion, theology and conduct-of-life titles; one-fifth-plus, belles-lettres, fiction and miscellaneous; one-tenth, travel and adventure; and one-tenth, science and natural history (Table III).

Illustrative of this general distribution pattern is that of the Mentor Library Company, 1819. A rough categorization of the Mentor collection evolved as: history, 13%; biography, 14%; science, travel, natural history and medicine, 12%; religion, 24%; belles-lettres and novels, 31%; legal moral and philosophical titles, 6%. Loan records for the library date from 1820 to 1852, a period nearly equivalent to the average life of the antebellum New England libraries, was approximately as follows: history titles, 39%; biography, 20%; science, 12%; religion, 13%; belles-lettres and novels, 8%; and legal, moral, and philosophical titles, 8%. Perhaps the most pertinent observation based upon this comparison of collection holdings with loans is the relatively intense borrowing of history and biography and the lower appeal of a considerably larger religion collection.

The distribution pattern of smaller Eastern Colonial libraries like that of Salem, Massachusetts and Burlington, New Jersey may have been roughly similar. Their collections both in 1759 and thirty years later centered upon narrative genres in history, travel, and fiction with limited attention to fine arts, professional and scholarly books.[28. Mentor Library Company, “Record Book,” 9-11, 13; Yankaskas, “Borrowing Culture,” 28-34.]

In the post-bellum social conduct literature and etiquette manuals were published in a starchy form of stylized handbooks intended for an upwardly-mobile middle-class. Women writers such as Sarah Josepha Hale, venerable editor of the Ladies Magazine and Godey’s Ladies Book, supplied many of these guidebooks. They commonly advised nurturance and family support roles for women and warned of the impropriety of reflexive intellectual pretension. Concern with politics, economics and public affairs were typically thought of as alien to female minds. In this popular genre Mrs. Hale’s Keeping House and House Keeping, in the offerings of the Twinsburg Library, was especially prominent.

There was a limited sampling of these home-type conduct guides in the collections, but the Sandusky Ladies Library held Margaret Conkling’s  American Gentleman’s Guide to Politeness and that epitome of the type, Harriet O. Ward’s Etiquette of the Best Society. In the midst of backwoods disorder and confusion the latter declared “the laws of social life, which, like the laws of the universe, prevent all things from returning to chaos.” [p. 52]. The Norwalk collection offered How to Be a Lady and Twinsburg followed with Louisa Tuthill’s popular affirmation, I Will Be a Lady, an accessible fictionalized guide, eventually appearing in at least ten editions.

After the mid-century and into the post-bellum years an expanding market economy and more rapid segmentation of the Western Reserve population was accompanied by an intensified national and secular focus in cultural life. Although core New Englanders were always a primary leadership coterie of the Reserve citizenry it has been estimated that by 1840 only about one-fourth were Yankees. The population of the eastern six of the Western Reserve counties grew by one-third from 1850 to 1880. Agriculture was sustained and the value of manufactures in Ashtabula County alone increased almost eight times during this period from just over a half to over four million dollars.

Into this milieu at least 144 book-length non-fiction success manuals were potentially available up to 1910. While about twenty of these are found in our sample of Reserve libraries, this was not inconsiderable in that these books, not prime choices for libraries, were often sold directly to families by traveling subscription agents. Representative titles recorded  in Reserve print catalogs include Bostonian E. P. Whipple’s Success and its Conditions, Chicago rhetoric professor William Matthews’ influential Getting On in the World; or Hints on Success in Life which appeared as a series of articles in the Chicago Tribune and eventually sold 70,000 copies in book format.  Also highly esteemed were the omnipresent Horatio Alger’sStrive and Succeed, and theologian and educator  Bela Bates Edwards’ two volume collection of short sketches of Self-Taught Men who always, it was asserted, resisting criticism and metaphysics, “devoted themselves to some practical object.”

Samuel Smiles classic manuals, Character and Self-Help, the latter a Reserve library book, in which he alleges the negligible supporting value of libraries compared to the manly practice of unmediated self-instruction. By the late Century the indefatigable publicist Orison Swett  Marden,  whose literary progress approximated to a sort of prolonged staccato  stutter from which eventually issued nearly 150 repetitive “road-to-success” effusions, perhaps epitomized his message to the Country and the Reserve in his celebrations of Rising in the World, Pushing to the Front and Character, the Grandest Thing of All.

Whether targeted to natural ambitions or intended as compensatory balance for masculine anxieties in an ever more complex order, the success literature focused upon the posited agency of sovereign will. Exercise of such resolute concentration inevitably would culminate, it was hoped, in requisite “character,” rather than depend upon communal or structural determinants of personal fortune.  Thus we begin to see new parameters forming for a reformulation of reading habits on the Reserve.[29. Twinsburgh Library Catalogue, 1851; Untitled, (“Prospectus and Catalog of the Ladies Library Association, Dec 1874”), Sandusky Library and Archives Center, Sandusky, Ohio; K.F. Geiser, “New England and the Western Reserve,” Mississippi Valley Historical Society Proceedings 66 (1912-1913), 64; in judging a person the apotheosis of constructed “character” appeared unbounded. Lyle Wright’s digitized American Fiction, 1850-1875 reports that the word (in its several senses) appears an average of sixteen times in some 2800 period novels. The continuing vitality of “success” literature in the Midwest is further suggested by the “Records of the Muncie (Indiana) Public Library, 1890-1902,” which indicate six Horatio Alger novels alone accounted during this period for 27% of the circulations of the twenty most popular titles. “What Middletown Read, 1891-1902,”, accessed Nov. 30, 2011. See also Susan Schulten, “Success,” in Encyclopedia of American Culture and Intellectual History, III, 3-10; Judy Hilkey, Character is Capital: Success Manuals and Manhood in Gilded Age America (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press), 126-141, 195-202; James B. Salazar, Bodies of Reform: the Rhetoric of Character in Gilded Age America (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 10, 88-98; and Irvin G. Wyllie, The Self-Made Man in America (New Brunswick, New Jersey: 1954), Chapter 3; Calculated from University of Virginia Historical Census Browser, “Total Population and Manufacturing Product, 1850-1880,” Ashtabula County, Ohio,, accessed March 20, 2010; “ALB Database, 1876”; Kett, The Pursuit of Knowledge, 45-47; Morgan Library, Ohio Imprints, 1796-1850.]

Accordingly, to the extent that these distributions are representative, the classifiable titles in five post-bellum Western Reserve small settlement collections as compared to six antebellum collections inventories fell from an average of fifty percent history/biography/religion to thirty-six percent. The fiction allotment increased from ten percent to thirty-four percent and might have been higher save for the continuing reluctance of some library managers to acquire what they generally viewed as unacceptably lurid fare (Tables II, III). This early hesitation was evident in a few towns like Chagrin Falls and Painesville, where commercial circulating libraries briefly appeared in response, chiefly as supply depots for high-demand fiction.[30. Painesville Telegraph, Jan. 4, 1833; Feb. 18, 1841; David Kaser, A Book for Sixpence: the Circulating Library in America (Pittsburgh: Beta Phi Mu, 1980), 116-126, 173-176; Lee Soltow and Edward Stevens, The Rise of Literacy and the Common School in the U.S. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 83-84; Stiffler, “Books and Reading.”]

The prolific ‘literary domestic” novelist Mary Jane Holmes, one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “damn scribbling women,” is represented by seventeen fiction titles in the Sandusky Ladies Library collection.  Some of her thirty-seven novels are said to have gone through seven editions with libraries sometimes obliged to acquire twenty copies. Sandusky also held sixteen of the twenty-five titles of the ill-starred British fictionist Margaret Oliphant’s nuanced explorations of the dimensions of grief. Stocked in addition was the romantic novelist Marion Harland’s popular title Alone, produced as a teenager, in which the heroine, having drifted innocently into feminism, is at last rescued by matrimony and avows that “submission is a pleasure, not a duty.” Harland later followed with her clinching non-fiction summation, Common Sense in the Household.

Also tailored to aspirant Reserve settlers was the empathetic mode of the immensely popular English writer, Dinah Mulock, who wrote engagingly of British middle-class life and of whom it was said that “the practical womanhood of ordinary life has never had a more sufficient representative.” Mulock offered Sandusky ladies Young Mrs. Jardine wherein Roderick Jardine succumbs to a Victorian paragon– appropriately named “Silence,” The Sandusky collection was further enhanced by an additional fifteen Mulock titles and by nineteen at Norwalk. Indeed, each of the top nine of Sandusky’s fictionists averaged thirteen titles and themselves claimed collectively four percent of the entire Sandusky Ladies Library. By 1892 the Medina Public Library evidenced the extremities of a post-bellum distribution pattern. The fiction and literature collection comprised 62% of total inventory, history, biography and religion, 29%, and travel and science together stood at but 4%.  Sub-literary fiction persisted but also present were Tolstoy and Turgenev, Eliot and Thackeray and religion titles now tended a bit more to the character of A. J. F. Behrend’s Socialism and Christianity and Richard Ely’s Social Aspects of Christianity.[31. Untitled, (“Prospectus and Articles of the Ladies Library Association, Sandusky, Ohio, 1874”); Richard Garnett, “Dinah Maria Mulock, 1826-1887,” in Sidney Lee, ed., The Dictionary of National Biography (London: Smith, Elder and Son, 1909), XII, 1177-1178; First Catalogue of Young Men’s Library, Norwalk, 1866; Circulating Library Society of Medina, Catalogue of the Medina Public Library (Medina, Ohio: Sentinel Print, 1892); Carol L. Urness, “Holmes Mary Jane Hawes,” in Edward T. James, et al., eds., Notable American Women: a Biographical Dictionary (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971,) II, 208-209; Mary Kelley, Private Woman, Public Stage, Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.]

Travel literature, encompassing the Holy Lands, the Arctic and Antarctica, the South Seas and the intriguing forays of Henry M. Stanley into “darkest” Africa, captured rapt attention in the post-bellum. Perhaps fulfilling a yearning for exotic imagery beyond foreshortened Reserve horizons, the Norwalk Library held Mrs. S. R. Urbino’s diverting An American Woman in Europe and the Sandusky Ladies Library members discovered Adeline Trefont’s  An American Girl Abroad, George Kennan’s classic Tent Life in Siberia, Richard and John Landers’ Travels into the Interior of Africa, and a sprinkling of like volumes. Of 310 classifiable travel titles in the Sandusky and Norwalk libraries, these  locales each accounted for at least ten entries: the United States, “world countries,” England and Scotland, Africa (except Egypt), Egypt, the Middle East and Bible lands, Russia, China and Italy, especially Rome and Venice.

There is a minimal average six and one-half percent provision of science and natural history titles in the five post-bellum libraries with print catalogs. The segment of post- bellum religion and science titles  in the Sandusky Ladies Library, 1877 and the Medina Public Library, 1892 apportioned to Darwinian evolution, experimental science and social gospel literature, leveled at twenty-nine volumes, including multiple works of Darwin and Huxley and single titles of Fiske, Drummond, Draper and Gray, comprising altogether a quarter of these sub-collections. Suggestive of ambivalence in balancing coverage in the Sandusky holdings is the entry of Princeton President James McCosh’s mediating Typical Forms and Special Ends in Creation in both scientific and theological classifications.

Fine arts reading through the late Century had yet barely touched the rural Reserve. Art titles at Sandusky numbered thirty-five, less than one-percent of inventory. The Norwalk catalog lists nine art volumes. On music and the theater the eleven libraries with print catalogs altogether indicate holdings of about a dozen volumes. The Norwalk Young Men’s Library copy of pastor William Howard Van Doren’s Mercantile Morals; Thoughts for Young Men Entering Mercantile Life presents incisive contemplation upon the perceived temptations of wealth. His solemn counsel is accompanied by obsessive cautions against ubiquitous “skepticism, novels and the theater,” the latter extended to a full seventy titles doggedly offered as documenting the looming pitfalls of the stage. These libraries could claim fine arts titles at an average of below three percent for the entire period.

Economic and trade literature appears at first over-shadowed by the Reserve library managers’ appointed mission of traditional cultural replication. In a country in which farming was the principal occupation, nine libraries held a total of thirty-four agriculture titles, less than one-half of one percent of inventory. Nonetheless a literature of practical guidance requisite to a market economy was beginning to surface.

Book collections for children were few before the 1890s but the Norwalk library included some 500 children’s volumes, twelve percent of inventory. This literature for the young seems mostly to mirror at a rather more simplistic rhetorical level standard themes of the adult books with few of what are now thought of as older classics. These titles and tracts spanned history, travel/adventure, elementary science and natural history, primers, exemplary strive-and-succeed literature in the manner of Seek and Find, and Winning His Spurs together with exceptionalist volumes in that of Revolt of the Colonies and Daring Deeds of our Forefathers. The Norwalk Library included eight volumes of Our Young Folks, one of the better children’s magazines, but, before the official recognition of “adolescence,” specifically designed young adult literature was limited. The South Amherst Library stocked Tom Brown at Oxford and P. T. Trowbridge’s popular Civil War and other adventure tales for boys.

Biography extensively embraced didactic themes and charismatic military, political, and explorer-adventurer figures with little attention to the biography of science and the humanities. Half of Norwalk’s 153 biographies and memoirs are of this category with education and fine arts accounting for six percent of the total. Curiously, the extension to notable Americans from other nationalities as subjects in the collections at Ashtabula, 1836, Norwalk, 1870 and Sandusky, 1870 remained unrealized and held steady at nineteen percent across this time period.

The social libraries seem not to have commonly maintained non-circulating reference collections. Multi-volume sets of Federal and Ohio public documents appear at Sandusky, South Amherst and Norwalk. There are also formidable sets of epitomized history and biographical literature including Jared Sparks’ sixty-biography, Library of American Biography, available at Twinsburg, together with a few subject dictionaries, cyclopedias and sprawling collections of marginal miscellany. Perhaps the major reference set, held and Twinsburg, Ashtabula, and Sandusky, was the thirteen volume first edition with volume fourteen supplement, 1846, of the Americana Encyclopedia along with the Encyclopedia Britannica, on the shelfat Medina. (Table III)[32. Untitled, (“Articles of Ladies Library Association, Sandusky”); Catalogue of the Young Men’s Library, NorwalkCatalogue of the South Amherst Library, Organized 1865 (South Amherst, Ohio, 1875); Ashtabula Social Library Association, Catalog, title holdings listed in Jones, “Materials,” 25-29; Circulating Library Society of Medina, Catalogue: Catalogue of the South Amherst Library, 1865.]

Neighborhood founts of print erupted and spread over the Western Reserve during much of the Nineteenth Century, the little resource nodes being one response to natural thirsts, to separation anxieties, to earnest self-help voluntarism, and to the romantic meliorism of the American frontier. This conjuncture accompanied circumstances more especially native to the Reserve itself. The Connecticut Land Company and civil authorities had established an isolated settlement plan with little deployment of supporting infrastructure. This pattern originally consisted of dispersed settlement households only tentatively connected but, upon a darkly broken landscape, half-forested as late as the 1850s, infused with a cohering ideology of literacy and of New England tradition. The libraries supplied an immediate cultural resource together with the beginnings of an institutional foundation that might survive and assist in refocusing the fragmentation of oncoming expansion and diversification.

The mushrooming of public libraries in the United States after the mid-1870s also occurred in a phase of public expansion of government services into a gradually diminishing private sector. The extension of policing, health and other protective and enabling functions began to be accompanied by some tax-supported provision of allied and supporting print resources.

Because of the proximity of eastern migration routes and the immediacy of the Puritan implantation errand, Ashtabula and the other northeastern Ohio Western Reserve counties (along with Cincinnati) remained for a time the cynosure of social library incursion into the New West. It developed that Ohio’s Western Reserve served, in the hyper-kinetic example of up-state New York, as a kind of hothouse, an exemplary testing ground for reform activity and the pursuit of social perfection against the prevailing survival currents of Ohio settlement. Nonetheless, the library collections included a limited presence of issue-oriented literature which was supplied primarily through missionary and special agenda associations’ distribution of low-cost or free tracts, also found in a few Sunday school and church libraries.

Twenty of twenty-two general Ohio libraries founded in the eighteen nineties were public tax-supported. In 1890 some fifty social libraries could still be found broadcast over the Reserve. Thirteen years later only a remaining five survived. For collections in New England, many dating to the Eighteenth Century, the twilight of the smaller libraries had descended earlier. In Massachusetts eighty-four social libraries ceased between 1840 and 1890. Although nationally most of the remainder of these American collections were destined to expire rapidly in the new Century, with a striking persistence there were still extant in 1900, rather contrary to the Western Reserve experience, a near equality of some 950 each of social and public collections.[33. Yankaskas, “Borrowing Culture,” 31; “ALB Database, 1876”; Stiffler, “Books and Reading”; U.S. Department of the Interior. Bureau of Education. Report of the Commissioner, 1899-1900 (Washington, D.C., 1901), 946, 1165.]

If  the conservatively programmed early collections had originally presented themselves as refreshing little oases to parched Reserve intellects, in later years their fluid sustenance must have begun to register as brackish to some popular tastes, perhaps less captivating than soporific. Still modest increases in memberships and new thematic interests registered in a number of locations. By aiming at barely submerged appetites the morally instructive heroism and villainy in popular narratives– historical, biographical and fictional–while dramatically appealing, might merge approved identifications with the cautions of negative example. Enlightenment, practical instruction and character enhancement could thereby superimpose upon diversion and escape in promoting a modicum of social control. On the other hand, expanded content including gifts gathered by dutiful volunteers could dissolve to an extent into random miscellany. A resultant dilution of message might therefore contribute to the attenuation of mentalité and thus tend to diminished impact.

Overall in the late antebellum, then, a demand for an enlarged reading agenda in the rural Reserve sought to include more popular fiction. As expanding curiosities surfaced, an extended narrative biography and history literature was assembled together with an appealing travel-adventure inventory and a core selection of conduct-of-life and success manuals responsive to the ardent ambitions of the times. The popularity of this literature was maintained by new publication, and extended into the post-bellum years. Attention to “practical” or useful information for farm and town began to appear.

In sum, to the connection of print access with introspective surveillance was added in the post-bellum, in what has been called the ”village enlightenment,” a perspective on reading as instrumental to the  pursuit of personal competence and differentiating  prestige in an expanding order. This heightened awareness of solitary agency thus began to supplement or supersede stress upon literacy as mainly targeted to the quest of divine preferment, or the confirmation of civil authority and neighborhood mores. Eventually it followed that, with a fragmenting population, appeal to a restricted portion of potential patrons could not sustain the rural settlement libraries.[34. William Gilmore-Lehne, Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life: Material and Cultural Life in Rural New England, 1785-1835 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989), 263.]

A comprehensive profile of the Nineteenth Century Western Reserve’s 140 some small-settlement collection holdings and their subject distributions will never be known but, with title duplication and when added to the inventories of the four Reserve cities’ social libraries, total volume count probably settled in advance of fifty thousand. Roughly similar selection from a relatively circumscribed publication product at first filled Reserve library shelves. It is presumed that the libraries originally exhibited comparable memberships in an Ohio cultural enclave shaped by a New England heritage. Widely spread holdings equivalent in totality to a small Twentieth Century public library were gathered over this period. In more recent years networking reciprocity began to extend access to still inadequate rural depots as regional public libraries embraced progressively enlarged service objectives.

This nascent integration was assisted by a developing infrastructure and by the pioneering initiatives of a few enterprising national publishers. These efforts included the presentation and marketing on the Reserve of pre-selected collection packages–as in the prime example of the eventual 187 non-fiction volumes of Harper’s popular Family Library. This and other initial promotions introduced print themes targeted to scattered social and school libraries. Although responding to local interests, these publishers independently shaped a rather more selectively informed and uniform library content. In this manner the semi-public structure of the Reserve’s hybrid social libraries had already begun to establish a working base for new public collections.


With indigenous responses to felt needs, implemented partly through accommodation of New England precedents, miniature print collections supported by volunteer enterprise emerged in the American West and on the Connecticut Western Reserve. Increasingly in the last quarter of the Century the legacy of the New England and Western Reserve social libraries was manifest in the carry over and utilization of their animating spirit and some of their structural forms in the establishment of more dependable public sponsorships. In this transition the expression of prior formative experience in new quasi-public (or quasi-social) organizational models no doubt hastened the spread of free public libraries in the United States. Even as late as the 1930s about 17% of libraries in U.S. cities over 30,000 and 500 collections in smaller towns had retained an amalgam of volunteer private and public governance.[35. Wayne Wiegand, Main Street Public Library: Community Places and Reading Spaces in the Rural Heartland, 1876-1956 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011), 173-186, 220; Carlton Joeckel, The Government of the American Public Library (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1935), 24, 79; Michael Kevane and William S. Sunstrom, “From Quasi-Private to Quasi-Public: the Development of the Public Library in the United States, 1870-1930,” 7, 8,, accessed March 10, 2010.]

Interestingly enough it appears in retrospect that some segment of Western Reserve pioneers had always been driven not alone by Puritan conscience, rational calculation, or pressing desperation of circumstance. Also present in admixture was an elemental impulse to restless mobility—insistent motivation to lateral movement in geo-space and to ascension in social space. The energized affirmations of Self-Help,Pushing Ahead, Outward Bound, Work and Win, Bound to Rise, Planting the Wilderness, Westward, a Tale of Immigrant Life, and a plethora of like tracts in the libraries helped both to nurture and to reflect an adventuring spirit and to reconcile adjustment to backwoods privation.

Tax support of Reserve public libraries began to spread more widely in the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century. Both an expansion of purview and a net decline in quality of collections was perhaps inevitable. It therefore became helpful that, apart from the objective content of assembled print, something of the early library managers’ esoteric commitment could survive as compensatory leavening to an incursive leveling. Rather paradoxically, quality in religious and general literature could persist as evidenced, for example, by the presence in the holdings of the Medina Public Library, 1892, of some eighty commonly respected authors listed in F. A. Archibald’s disarmingly cosmopolitan bibliography, Methodism and Literature: Catalogue of Select Books for the Libraries of the Church and Sunday School, 1883.

As high cultural uniformity and continuity on the antebellum Reserve grew overshadowed by diversity and complexity, something of the legacy of the early Reserve social libraries could be preserved in the comforting recollection of a unitary vision. Their inspirational potential survived disproportionate to an improvised record of parochial coverage, limited membership and ad-hoc organization. Springing from commitment to a stubborn transcendence of routine and habitual survival in a rude environment, the little collections finally discovered ample motivation and established valuable precedent.

Despite a notable extension, then, the libraries frequent shallowness revealed some excrescence of ephemeral preoccupation and unfocused accumulation. Nonetheless there underlay the transfer of private energy and artifact into the public domain an integrity of motivation that promised potential for rewarding growth. Finally, perhaps the essence of the social library saga on the Western Reserve was more that of a hard won heritage of community aspiration and struggle than the evidence of a scatter of material foundations. Ultimately the Reserve’s record of small settlement reading stations, succumbing to manifest inadequacy, yielded to a more cosmopolitan social construction–to skillfully expanded and delineated collections, to the beginnings of trained administration, to a sustaining financial base in a new age and in the wake of the American public library movement.[36. Haynes McMullen, “The Very Slow Decline of the Social Library,” Library Quarterly 55 (1985), 221-223; Patrick M. Valentine, “America’s Antebellum Social Libraries: A Reappraisal in Institutional Development,” Library and Information History 27 (March 2011), 32-51; W.I. Fletcher, “The Proprietary Library in Relation to the Public Library Movement,” Library Journal 31 (1906), 208-210; Abigail Van Slyck, Free to All: Carnegie Libraries and American Culture, 1880-1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), 131; Shera, Foundations, 54-126; Pankratz, “New Englanders,” 1-31; Jones, “Materials,” 13, 61; Stiffler, “Books and Reading.”]

Table I – Connecticut Western Reserve Small Settlement Social Libraries, N = 107; Founding Dates, 1800-1900; By Ohio Counties; and By Five-Year Periods

Western Reserve Table 1

Sources: Stiffler, “Antecedents”‘ H. McMullen, “AJB Database, 1876”; E.H. Miller, “Educational Legislation in Ohio, 1803-1850.”

Table II – Nineteenth Century Western Reserve Social Libraries with Print or Manuscript Catalogs

Western Reserve Table 2

*Not analyzed for subject distribution or collection
M: Manuscript Catalog; P: Print Catalog

Table III – Percentage Subject Distributions, Classified Titles, Antebellum and Postbellum Western Reserve Small Settlement Social Library Collections, 1800-1900

Western Reserve Table 3

Sources: McMullen, “ALB 1876 Database”; U.S. Bureau of Education, “1876 Report”; Stiffler, “Books and Reading.”


Name, Date of Founding and Volume Holdings of Small Settlement Social Libraries in the Seven Eastern Ohio Counties of the Connecticut Western Reserve, Antebellum and Postbellum, 1800-1900

Western Reserve Table 4


Western Reserve Table 4a


Western Reserve Table 4b


Western Reserve Table 4c