Knowledge Droppings, Our Glorious National Heritage

How did knowledge drop in Early America? Part III

Now a Regular Feature, Apparently


Some more evidence on how public documents generated by the nascent Federal State were spread around the new nation like so much fertile manure.

Exhibit A & A’

In August 1845, the State Department sent out a circular to the Presidents of “Colleges, Lyceums &c” informing them that “a box containing one set (17 volumes) of the Documents of the 1st session of the 28th Congress, and one volume of Nicolet’s Report, has been forwarded from this Department for you.”

Appended to the circular was a list of recipient institutions, by state. In New York, Union College, Hamilton College, Geneva College, Columbia College, and the New York Historical Society received copies; in Georgia, the University of Georgia and Georgia Historical Society garnered the same.

This pattern was repeated in each state; colleges and historical societies — and no other kind of institution, not even circulating libraries — got the goods.

A similar circular went out to “the Governors of all the States and Territories.” (The clerk did not feel the need to list all of these).

Exhibit B

In March 1843, when Anthony Halsey, corresponding secretary of the New York Mercantile Library Association, wrote to Daniel Webster, the Secretary of State, to ask the Department for “copies of Congressional Reports and other public documents for the past year,” Webster informed him that because “the distribution of the Congressional documents sent to this Department” was “regulated by law,” it was “not in my power to furnish the Mercantile Library Association with a Set.”

In explaining the reason for his request, Halsey noted that the MLA’s usual providers — congressmen — had neglected to donate these materials of late.

In Sum

It would appear that in the early 1840s, at least, “public” libraries were those held by colleges, historical societies, and state governments. There was a formal law (or laws) regulating free distribution of Congressional documents, etc. Libraries run by earnest and well-connected self-improvement types did not meet the standard set by this law.

More soon?

Previously: Part I, Part II


For circulars, roll 33, M40: Domestic Letters of the Department of State, 1784-1906, RG 59 (Washington: NARA, 1949);
On the mercantile library, roll 31, ibid. and roll 101, M179: Miscellaneous Letters of the Department of State, 1789-1906, RG 59 (Washington: NARA, 1963),/a>

Image cite: Walter Parenteau, “Sorted White Paper Pile,” Flicker, CC License

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