Libraries, Reading Communities and Cultural Formation in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic

Lead Research Organisation: University of Liverpool
Department Name: Sch of History


This project investigates the contribution of books to social, cultural and political change in the 18th century. It does so by exploring in unprecedented range and depth the role played by voluntary subscription libraries in the reading lives of communities and individuals across the Anglophone Atlantic between 1731 and 1800.

Organised and funded by the state, libraries are today valued as a vital social good and a fundamental plank of liberal democracy. Yet the modern Public Library (originating in the mid-19th century) is only the most recent solution to the problem of how communities provide themselves with books. Before then, there existed a flourishing, unregulated library culture built not by the state but by groups of autonomous individuals acting from a range of motivations, including libraries built and sustained through private subscriptions.

The first formal subscription library was the Library Company of Philadelphia (LCP), begun in 1731 by printer's apprentice Benjamin Franklin and a group of like-minded artisans as a means of acquiring expensive books to provoke conversation and inspire intellectual change. Thereafter, subscription libraries rapidly became a major part of the urban landscape, with at least 350 founded in towns and villages across the British Isles and North America by the turn of the 19th century. These libraries were quite different from commercial operations known popularly as 'circulating libraries'. Subscription libraries were essentially private membership clubs, in which subscribers pooled their resources to acquire a wider choice of books than they could afford individually. Their collections - captured in the library catalogues that are the main focus of this project - constituted material instantiations of readers' shifting interests, helping to reveal the role of newly enfranchised readers in reorganising and extending literary, intellectual and political culture.

Although scholars have long been aware of the emergence of subscription libraries in 18th-century Britain and America, no study of this scale has been possible before. The project will use cutting-edge digital techniques to capture, interpret and make freely available online surviving documentary evidence relating to the books acquired and circulated by more than 80 libraries, founded by communities ranging from tiny rural settlements like Wigtown in Scotland and Fredericktown on the Pennsylvanian frontier, to rapidly growing industrial centres like Belfast and Leeds, and bustling transatlantic ports like New York, Dublin and Bristol. This material will provide unprecedented insights into the dissemination and reception of books across the Anglophone Atlantic in a crucial period marked by Enlightenment, Revolutions, global encounters and technological change. Our findings will be disseminated to a wide range of audiences through scholarly books and articles, online resources developed to support users of the open access database, and a varied programme of public workshops and exhibitions co-designed in collaboration with nine Project Partners - including many of the subscription libraries that survive from this period, such as the LCP.

The team of 8 investigators drawn from the UK, Australia and the USA is extremely well qualified to conduct this research, having published more than 20 books and 80 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters between them on related topics. The proposed approach has been extensively trialled through the PI's successful AHRC-funded Research Network on Community Libraries, while the Digital Humanities Research Group (DHRG) at Western Sydney University is a global leader in pioneering large-scale digital research on book history, library history and the history of reading. As such, the DHRG is uniquely positioned to provide instant connections with related datasets such as co-I Burrows's award-winning French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe database, originally funded by the AHRC.

Planned Impact

One of the main aims of this project is to bring tangible benefits to libraries and those interested in the social, cultural and political contributions that they make in society. An ambitious but achievable impact strategy has been co-developed with a wide range of Partners in the library sector across the UK, the USA and Australia, each of which will benefit in specific ways tailored to their own needs and user groups. These include surviving libraries from the period under review, including the Library Company of Philadelphia, the New York Society Library, the Union Library of Hatborough and the Linen Hall Library in Belfast, as well as a smaller number that incorporated earlier subscription libraries - including the Birmingham & Midland Institute (a cultural organisation which subsumed the original Birmingham Library of 1779), the Liverpool Central Library, the Bristol Central Library (both Public Libraries which inherited documentation from now defunct subscription libraries) and the State Library of New South Wales (first established in 1826 as the Australian Subscription Library).

The project approaches impact through five interconnected strands, elaborated upon in the PtoI attachment:
1. Library enrichment - including deeper contextualised understanding of each Partner institution's history and collections, catalogue enhancement, student internships, career development opportunities for library staff and curators, closer relationships with sister libraries nationally and internationally, increased capacity for further research collaborations and enhanced profile amongst the international research community;
2. Book of the Month programme - a programme to run throughout 2021 across all Partners, designed to encourage libraries, librarians and library users to make connections between the different Partner institutions, to raise awareness of the project and its website amongst library users, and to promote further public engagement activities in Year 3;
3. Exhibitions - ranging in scope from a single display case through to more ambitious installations depending on the capacities of Partners, these will aim to inform and inspire library users by setting each Partner's institutional history within the wider framework of local history and national/international library development;
4. Workshops - designed to introduce the database and its potential uses, to tell some of the local stories that emerge from the research, and to solicit feedback from the different user groups outlined below on the functionality of the project's online resources;
5. Online resources - the open access website will host a range of resources designed to facilitate access for non-academic user groups, including 'how-to' videos, FAQs, glossaries of key terms, teaching materials, Book of the Month blogs and an online exhibition of marginalia and other primary source materials.

With our Partners' help, these pathways will reach further user groups with a vested interest in the research, including librarians, library users, family and local historians, teachers, library campaigners, policy makers and the media, allowing us to bring largely unfamiliar historical perspectives to contemporary debates about the value of libraries. Non-Partner libraries and librarians will benefit from deeper contextualised understanding of the history of their own institutions and collections, while the project will disseminate best practice advice on exhibiting library history and build capacity towards further research collaborations between libraries and HEIs. Local historians, family historians and teachers will benefit from the project's focus on People, Books, Communities and Concepts to enrich their research and pedagogy, while charities, campaigners and policy makers will be able to use our research to articulate historically-informed arguments for the social and cultural importance of reading and to inform new futures for library provision.


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Description ESRC North West Social Science Doctoral Training Partnership CASE Studentship
Amount £50,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Liverpool 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2022 
End 03/2027
Description North West Collaborative Doctoral Training Partnership CDA Studentship
Amount £50,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Liverpool 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2022 
End 03/2026
Description Reese Fellow in American Bibliography awarded to PDRA Dr Sophie Jones
Amount $2,000 (USD)
Organisation The Library Company of Philadelphia 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United States
Start 03/2022 
End 04/2022