Sunday, March 23, 2014

Alabama Libraries in 1886 and 1897

Having spent my working career in Alabama libraries, the history of those institutions in this state has always interested me.

I've constructed the beginnings of a chronology of Alabama libraries up to about 1920. Maybe one day soon I'll start organizing those boxes of material I have on the subject and continue expanding that resource. Maybe.

At the moment I'd like to look at the Alabama libraries listed in two reports published late in the nineteenth century.

The 1886 report from the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Education gathered information on “public” libraries holding over 300 volumes during 1884-5. A similar report by the same office in 1876 found 3,647 such libraries in the United States; ten years later 5,338 were found. The report does not define “public”, but the term seems to be applied to any library open to some subset of the public, whether free or by subscription, as opposed to purely personal libraries.

There are 41 libraries in Alabama included in this 1886 report, as noted in the table below. Only two are libraries with more than 10,000 volumes: the State and Supreme Court Library in Montgomery with over 17,000 volumes and Spring Hill College library in Mobile with over 12,000 volumes. Both of these libraries were also founded early in the state's history, 1828 and 1829 respectively.

A few libraries held between 3,000 and 10,000 volumes: 

Huntsville Female College Belles-Lettres Library, Howard
(Samford) College in its original Marion location, Judson Female Institute, Mobile Bar Library, Mobile Library-a “general” library with 5500 volumes although founded in 1879, the State Board of Health library,Young Ladies’ Academy of the Visitation library in Summerville, the Talladega College library, and the University of Alabama library in Tuscaloosa which was the third largest in the state with 6300 volumes.

Libraries between 1,000 and 3,000 volumes:

Southern University library in Greensborough, Howard College’s two society libraries, Marion Female Seminary, Spring Hill College’s Reading Room Association, YMCA in Selma, Talladega College’s Theological Department library, Institute for Training Colored Ministers in Tuscaloosa [now Stillman College], Pierson Library at the Alabama Insane Hospital [now Bryce]

Some libraries with under 1000 volumes:

18 libraries including those at several small schools, the Dallas Bar Library in Selma, a general “Library Association” in Opelika, a “Ladies Library” in Florence and “Book Club” libraries in Gainesville and Tuscaloosa.

Many of these libraries were designated as “free”, but some were subscription: the two law libraries in Mobile and Selma, the Mobile general library, and the book club libraries in Gainesville and Tuscaloosa.

The second table included in this post shows the 28 Alabama libraries over 1000 volumes in the 1897 report. Most were included in that group in the 1886 report, but several libraries have now joined it which were absent earlier.

These libraries include some not included at all in 1886: Birmingham Public Library, Zelosophian Academy library in Birmingham, St. Bernard Benedictine Society library, Jones College for Young Ladies library in Gadsden, Central Alabama Academy library in Huntsville, Academy of the Visitation library in Mobile, and the State Normal College library in Troy. Some, such as Birmingham Public, were new libraries; some of the others may have been newly discovered by the compilers of these reports.

These two publications give us an interesting snapshot of Alabama libraries as the nineteenth century is coming to an end. A number of libraries with significant collections have developed, including a few of what we now consider “public” libraries. Social groups in even small towns have started collections. Specialized law and medical libraries have appeared.


                       Table XVI from the 1884-5 Statistics of Public Libraries of the United States

From a table on page 370 of the Statistics of Libraries…1897

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