Libraries, collections of texts arranged for use or borrowing by members or the public, date from the Byzantine, Mesopotamian, and Greek and Roman libraries of antiquity. During the Middle Ages, monastery and cathedral libraries in Europe gathered collections of primarily religious and theological works. The founding of universities like Oxford and Cambridge in Britain and the University of Paris in France during the late Middle Ages resulted in the formation of new libraries built to serve college curricula. The invention of the printing press and the rise of humanism during the Renaissance resulted in rapidly expanding collections in many libraries. In the British colonies in America, the first recorded library was established in 1638, when John Harvard bequeathed his library for the establishment of what would become Harvard College. Alongside these institutional libraries, scholars, members of the clergy, physicians, nobles, monarchs, and bibliophiles built their own private libraries reflecting their unique reading interests.
Educational reforms in the 18th and 19th centuries resulted in rising literacy rates and increasing numbers of new readers, who found themselves with a range of libraries to use. Subscription libraries, like the Library Company of Philadelphia (founded in 1731), charged patrons dues (often annually) for the use of their collection. Commercial circulating libraries charged customers a fee for borrowing reading matter with broad popular appeal. The libraries of learned societies, debating clubs, and literary associations built libraries for use by members (see Clubs and Associations). Through legal deposit laws, national libraries, such as the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the British Museum library, amassed large collections related to the cultural heritage of their respective nations. In towns and cities, public libraries, such as the Boston Public Library (opened in 1854), opened their doors to local citizens and new immigrants.
Selections from Harvard
From Widener Library, published materials in the Reading collection include catalogs of private libraries, circulating libraries, and subscription libraries. Also included are library histories, professional literature for librarians, and guides on how to use libraries. Works are mainly in English, French, and German from the 18th and 19th centuries.
From Houghton, the catalogs of several private libraries—notably that of William Wordsworth—together with those of several book clubs and associations.
From Harvard University Archives, the Harvard College Charging Records from the 18th and 19th centuries document the reading habits of Harvard College undergraduates, faculty, library staff, and other prominent members of Boston society. Notable people listed in the charging records include John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Henry James, William James, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Gould Shaw, and Henry David Thoreau.
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