A Short History of Libraries

This 1827 article on the value and history of libraries appeared in Washington DC’s Freedom’s Journal.  Although Freedom’s Journal lived a relatively short life, it is important in that it was the first American newspaper written by black Americans for black Americans. From the beginning the editors felt, “… that a paper devoted to the dissemination of useful knowledge among our brethren, and to their moral and religious improvement, must meet with the cordial approbation of every friend to humanity…“.


Constantine crowned by Constantinople

Constantine crowned by Constantinople

Of the many efforts made by the friends of learning in different parts of the Globe, none have met with more success, nor been attended with more benefits to the community at large, than the establishment, in different cities, towns, and villages, of libraries : whether we consider them as public, social, or private. All nations appear to have been sensible of their value, whether we recall to the reader’s mind, the papyrus of the Egyptians; the parchment of the Romans; the pictures of the Peruvians, or the palm leaves of Sandwich Islanders. Many of the wealthy Romans had private libraries . Libraries were also established by several of the Emperors as Augustus, Tiberius, Vespasian, Trajan, and others. Even the cruel Domitian sent to foreign courts for the purpose of collecting and enlarging his library . In the reign of Constantine, there were no less than thirty public libraries in Rome. The most magnificent of all, was the Ulpian library, founded by Trajan.

We know little about the middle ages; between the destruction and revival of literature in Europe. It is highly probable, however, that very few were preserved by the rude tribes of Goths and Vandals, who, at that period began to overrun Europe, sparing neither age, sex nor condition. For what value could men, rude and uncultivated “as the beasts that perish” and are not, set upon the classic authors of Greece and Rome? – Plunder was all their aim, and little cared they for the most valuable manuscript of former times.

But former efforts, in former times, when books were scarce and dear, were nothing compared to the great principles now in action by the moderns. It is true, we read of the Alexandrian library, containing at the time of its accidental destruction, five hundred thousand volumes; but whether they were sheets of parchment, each composing a separate volume, is left uncertain. Of the advantages to be derived from the perusal of interesting and instructive books, we need not enlarge: we need not assure those aspiring after knowledge, that the path to Minerva’s Temple, though still with many inequalities in the road, is as open as it ever was, to those self-taught men of this and former ages, who have been the pride, not only of their native countries, but of the age in which they lived.

The extent of a library is indefinite: and rules for its formation must depend chiefly on the purpose for which it is designed. Its real and nominal value consists not in the number of the volumes, but in the goodness of the selection. An ancient sage is said to have possessed only four volumes.

But though, we, who live in the present enlightened era, need not expect such difficulties in the way in procuring books, or acquiring knowledge; we contend, that every facility should be placed before our youth, that the many moments now spent in idleness and dissipation may be employed in storing their minds with all kinds of useful knowledge, and preparing themselves for future usefulness. “Knowledge is power,” we are assured; and I need not inform our readers that were we as a community, to be judged by that standard, we should be exactly in our present condition, were not the present circumstances, beyond our control in a measure, really in the way.

We are anxious, now books are so cheap, to behold a general movement on our part for the formation of public libraries . We need not cite upon the labouring classes in Great Britain; especially in Scotland, where it is carried so far as to have travelling circulating libraries – we need not refer them to the classes in the community around us. In New England social libraries have long been in operation, and where do we behold so much intelligence characterizing the people, from the richest to the poorest? None who are our real friends will permit us to strive in so laudable an enterprize, without aiding us by the donation of such books as they may feel enabled to give.

Seneca QuoteWe do not expect our libraries will be equal to those of former times, founded by royal bounty, were not even more attention paid to the words of Seneca, “non refert quam multos libros, sed quam bonos habeas;” but we cherish a hope that a commencement will be made by our brethren in the different cities. Rome was not built in a day nor year; but a foundation once laid, and the unexampled progress of her increase is well known. The most difficult part of any undertaking is to make a beginning: now from our experience, we feel assured that were the matter once commenced, but little difficulty would be experienced in collecting small libraries of two or three hundred volumes.

Enlightened warriors of all ages, in the midst of battle, and the height of their glory, have been emulous of manifesting their love of science, to posterity: such was the case of the late Emperor Napoleon, when he seized from the hand of a mummy in Egypt, a written roll of papyrus, which he presented to the National Library on his return to Paris. To this cause, are we to attribute the respect which has ever been paid to learned men, by contending nations, making every effort to forward their enterprizes in the cause of science.

Who is ignorant of the great advantages, which apprentices in this country, and Europe, have derived from the establishment of “Apprentices’ Libraries?” Who is so unconcerned for the welfare of his brethren, as not to desire something on the same plan for our improvement?

Man is not a stationary creature. Living in the midst of civilized society, he must of necessity progress with it, or fall into a state of ignorance and degradation still lower. Of the two, who would prefer the latter? Who can contemplate the untiring labours of the great master-spirits of the present age, and not feel grateful that such men were created to be the leading stars in diffusing knowledge throughout the world? Of a certainty, their names must survive, when all the boasted works of human art have crumbled into dust.

We are advocates for no ‘Utopian schemes,’ notwithstanding the ‘Fredonian’ asserts the contrary. Were not prejudices and complexion in the way, it would be impossible for us, in our present unenlightened state, to be upon a perfect equality with the more favoured part of our population. As “absurd and impolitic as our course” may be, we have never contended, that there should be no distinctions in society: but we have, and are still determined to maintain, that distinctions should not exist merely on account of a man’s complexion. We are no enthusiasts: believing but little in the republican principles of Mrs. Macaulay, or John Randolph. We have ever seen innumerable difficulties in the way against the improvement of our people, and their consequent respectability; on the one hand open and concealed enemies; on the other, indifference on their part; but, nevertheless, we are not discouraged. Our path is plain before us. With nothing to do with the politics of the day – nothing daunted by opposition from any quarter – having in view their sole improvement, we have but to proceed, and leave it to posterity, to pass judgment upon us and our labours.

This item, and others like it, can be found in Accessible Archive’s African American Newspapers Collection. This enormous collection of African American newspapers contains a wealth of information about cultural life and history during the 1800s and is rich with first-hand reports of the major events and issues of the day.


Collection: African American Newspapers
Publication: Freedom’s Journal
Date: October 5, 1827
Title: Libraries
Location: New York, New York

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