Guide to the Providence Library Company records, 1753-1899


Providence Athenaeum
251 Benefit Street
Providence, RI, 02903
Tel: 401-421-6970
email: info@provath.org
website: www.provath.org

Published in 2019

Collection Overview

Title: Providence Library Company records
Date range: 1753-1899
Creator: Providence Library Company
Extent: 20 items
Abstract: Providence Library Company records, dating 1753-1899.
Language of materials: English
Repository: Providence Athenaeum
Collection number: Arch-001

Scope & content

Providence Library Company institutional records include two register books (1753-1865), catalogs (1753-1818), book lists (1759, 1799), two minute books (1774-1836), various miscellaneous papers, bills and receipts (1815-1820s), charter and by-laws (1818), a notebook of proprietors' lists (1818), and circulation records (1815-1828). The materials dating 1899 are typescript copies from original documents of the Providence Library Company dating 1768 (Rules), 1798 (Act of Incorporation), and 1817 (Act of Incorporation amendments).

Arrangement

Arranged in three series, and chronologically thereunder:
  • Series 1. Administrative records
  • Series 2. Catalogs
  • Series 3. Collection records

Historical Note

The Providence Library Company (1753-1836)

In 1753, when Providence, Rhode Island was a small port town in colonial America with a population of 3,000 people, a group of individuals came together to found a library. They called it the Providence Library Company. In the Register Book, 1753-1835, the founders acknowledged their purpose of establishing the library: “Whereas a Collection or Library of usefull and Edifying Books, will most certainly tend to the Benefit and Rising Generation thereto belonging …” (1).

Many of the founders of the Providence Library Company were wealthy and politically active figures within the town. Stephen Hopkins, signer of the Declaration of Independence, was one of the men heavily involved in the founding of the Providence Library Company. Also among the founders were the Brown brothers: Nicholas, who served as first librarian; Joseph; John; and Moses, who was just 15 at the time of the library’s founding. The Providence Library Company was a proprietary library, meaning it was owned by its proprietors, or shareholders. The eighty-six initial proprietors were primarily merchants (a term that covered a wide variety of occupations), and were politically and socially influential in colonial Rhode Island. In a 2018 article by historian Jane Lancaster, she states: “Widow Sarah Burrough was the only woman among the original 86 shareholders of the Providence Library Company in 1753; married women in the eighteenth century had little financial independence” (2).

The library was modeled on Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia Library Company, the first American proprietary library founded in 1731. The idea behind such libraries was that by pooling resources, a group of people could fund the formation of a collection of books better than any one person could. Proprietors were able to check books out from the library, a privilege that was also extended to their family and friends.

In 1756, 345 books, carefully selected and ordered from London, arrived in Providence. The library was housed in the old Town House (the seat of the local government), which stood on Meeting Street, and was accessible for three hours every Saturday. On December 23, 1758, the General Assembly met at the Town House, and had lit fires in the building to keep warm. After they adjourned, Nicholas Brown locked the building up. Overnight, the fire smoldered and on Christmas Eve, the building went up in flames. Providence had no fire engine, and despite all best efforts the building was completely lost. Of the 345 books in the library, 71 were checked out at the time, and those were the only books to survive the fire. The library founders decided to raise money to replace the lost volumes through a lottery, and by 1762 the newly purchased books had arrived. These new books, along with the 71 saved from the fire (which had been housed temporarily in the shop of Joseph Lawrence), were moved to Esek Hopkins’ shop, which served as the temporary library until 1764. The library was then relocated to the County House (known today as the Old State House), where it remained for over fifty years.

The population of Providence surged from 4,355 at the beginning of the Revolutionary War to 7,614 in 1800. The city was expanding and the Industrial Revolution was booming in Rhode Island. However, the Providence Library Company was not faring as well, as the war had stopped the importation of books from London and proprietors were not reliably paying their dues. In October of 1798, a committee of library proprietors successfully petitioned the General Assembly for an act of incorporation, in an effort to be able to establish laws and ordinances for the library. The committee members organized a membership drive, and the resulting influx of new proprietors allowed the library’s collection to grow.

In 1815, the library directors decided to pursue an amalgamation with the newly formed Literary and News Room, located between Market Square and South Main Street. The proprietors of the library had been interested in opening a reading room, and viewed this as a logical merger. The library moved its collection to the Literary and News Room, and remained there until 1820, after which it changed locations several times.

In 1831, the Providence Athenaeum was established, and in light of the Providence Library Company’s decline in both their stock of books and their proprietors, discussions about uniting the two libraries began in 1832. By January 1836 when terms for a merger could not be unanimously agreed upon, both institutions decided to dissolve their corporations. They petitioned the General Assembly to accept a charter for a new institution and The Athenaeum of 1836 was established the following month.

Historical note written February, 2019 by Stephanie Ovoian and Sarah Shaw.

Sources:
  • Lancaster, Jane. Inquire Within: A Social History of the Providence Athenaeum since 1753. Providence, R.I. : Providence Athenaeum, 2003.
  • Lancaster, Jane. “Well-behaved women?”. In: Providence Athenaeum’s Universal Penman, Spring 2018, pages 4-8.
  • Providence Library Company. Register book, 1753-1835. (Manuscript notebook in Providence Athenaeum Archives)

Access & Use

Access to the collection: Open to public research. Materials are available by prior appointment that requires 24-hour advance notice.
Use of the materials: It is the responsibility of the researcher to obtain any necessary copyright clearances. Researchers seeking to publish materials should complete an Application to Publish Library Materials available through written request to info@provath.org
Preferred citation: Providence Library Company records, Arch-001, Providence Athenaeum.
Contact information: Providence Athenaeum
251 Benefit Street
Providence, RI, 02903
Tel: 401-421-6970
email: info@provath.org
website: www.provath.org

Administrative Information

ABOUT THE COLLECTION  
Accruals: No further materials are expected for this collection.
ABOUT THE FINDING AID  
Author: Finding aid written by Sarah Shaw, July 2018.
Encoding: Encoded using Oxygen XML Editor 2018-07-05 to 2019-02-14
Descriptive rules: Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS)

Additional Information

Related material: Related collections and images held by other institutions, viewed online July 29, 2018:
  • Stephen Hopkins Collection, 1747-1775 (MSS 492, Rhode Island Historical Society)
  • John Howland Collection, 1795-1857 (MSS 499, Folders 3 and 12, Rhode Island Historical Society)
  • Charter and by-laws of the Providence Library Company, and a Catalogue of the books of the Library. Providence: printed by Miller and Hutchens, April 1818. Full scan on Google Books of copy held by New York Public Library
  • Portrait of Stephen Hopkins by John Philip Hagen, 1999 (Portrait number 275, Brown University Portrait Collection)
  • Photograph of the Old State House, Providence, Rhode Island

Inventory


Series 1. Administrative records

Container Description Date
Archives Closet 1, Shelf 1, Item 1 Providence Library Company. Register book, 1753-1835
Contents Note: Spine title: Register Book 1753-1835, Providence Library Company. A volume with manuscript entries in various hands, the chronological entries begin March 22, 1753 and end October 15, 1835. The pages are numbered by hand up to 256; the last page is blank. The entries are comprised of a founding statement, lists of subscribers, meeting minutes, library rules, a catalog of the books purchased, with later notation of those saved in the fire of December 1758, and many records of purchase and transfer of shares.

1753 March 22 - 1835 October 15
Archives Closet 1, Box 1, Folder 3 Providence Library Company register book
Contents Note: Photocopy. Pages 1-70 (1753-1765)

1753-1765
Archives Closet 1, Shelf 1, Item 2 Minute book
Contents Note: Manuscript.

1774 September - 1836 May
Archives Closet 1, Box 1, Folder 2 Minute book for the Providence Library
Contents Note: Photocopy.

1774 September 5 - 1836
Archives Closet 1, Box 1, Folder 4 Providence Library Company "papers [received] from John Carter Brown Library Nov. 20, 1912"
Contents Note: Manuscript. Comprised of bills and receipts. Transferred from the John Carter Brown Library to the Providence Athenaeum in 1912.

circa 1810-1830
Archives Closet 1, Box 2, Folder 1 Providence Library Company miscellaneous papers
Contents Note: Manuscript. Includes "Catalogue of Prov. Lib." [1815] and 1 printed item, list of missing books, 3rd Nov. 2 copies.

circa 1815-1833
Archives Closet 1, Box 2, Folder 2 Miscellaneous papers
Contents Note: Manuscript.

circa 1815-1833
Archives Closet 1, Shelf 1, Item 5 Charter and by-laws of the Providence Library Company
Contents Note: Published: Providence, Miller and Hutchens, 1818. Bound with a Catalogue. 46 pages. 2 copies.

1818
Archives Closet 1, Shelf 1, Item 3 Notebook ("Library") of proprietors' lists
Contents Note: Notebook with manuscript entries on 22 pages signed "Providence, January 5, 1818, John Howland"; cover title: "Library". Howland states he was "appointed by the President and Directors of the Providence Library Company to acertain who are Proprietors of the Library and to Report their names together with the evidence of their several titles." Entries are comprised of lists of proprietors holding shares as of various dates (Nov. 5, 1817, 1762, Oct. 3, 1801), and a list of those with a "Plurality of shares". Bound dos-à-dos with the "Record of the Second Military District" in a different handwriting; first entry is dated Sept. 19th, 1814 (signed "James Burrill Junr Chairman [and] Thomas Burgess, Secty"); second entry Sept. 19, 1814, and final entry Sept. 23, 1814.

1818 January 5
Archives Closet 1, Box 2, Folder 3 Miscellaneous papers
Contents Note: Manuscript.

circa 1820s
Archives Closet 1, Box 2, Folder 4 Miscellaneous papers
Contents Note: Manuscript.

circa 1820s
Archives Closet 1, Box 1 , Folder 5 Subscription for the Union with Providence Athen[a]eum
Contents Note: Manuscript. 1 folded sheet.

At top of first page: "We the Undersigned Stockholders and donors of the Providence Library Company do hereby agree to take the number of shares affixed to our respective names in the stock of the Providence Athena[e]um, provided a union of the Two Institutions can be effected on terms satisfactory to the board of directors of the Providence Library Company." There follows a columned list of names, signatures, old subscription shares held, and new amounts pledged if the union is effected.

1835?
Archives Closet 2, Box 1, Folder 4 Rhode Island General Assembly, January 1836 session. Appendix No. 4 "To the Honorable the General Assembly, January Session A.D. 1836"
Contents Note: Printed sheet (2 pages), Appendix 4 excerpted from a longer document (the records of the Rhode Island General Assembly's January 1836 session); recto is unnumbered, verso numbered page 58.

This is a petition in which a group 59 subscribers of the Providence Library Company, many also members of the Providence Athenaeum (est. 1831), state that the existence of these two similar institutions "has been mutually disadvantageous, by increasing expenses and diminishing the interest of each. Aware of this, these institutions, after mature consideration, and ineffectual attempts for an union, have severally resolved to dispose of their libraries and dissolve their corporations in case the honorable Assembly would grant a new charter ... [for a new institution, named 'The Athenaeum']". The names of the subscribers include Nicholas Brown, Thomas Burgess, John Pitman, Frederick A. Farley, and Moses Brown.

1836
Archives Closet 2, Box 1, Folder 4 Constitutions, By-Laws, Regulations and Acts of Incorporation of the Providence Library Company, Providence Athenaeum and The Providence Athenaeum from 1753
Contents Note: Bound in a volume comprised of 3 sections, with manuscript title page "The Providence Athenaeum, 1899" and spine title "Athenaeum Constitutions, By-Laws, and Regulations from 1753". Pencilled call number: 027.2 P94C; the volume is date stamped Feb 25 1899. The bound volume includes materials from the Providence Library Company and the Providence Athenaeum established 1831 (in 1st section), and the Providence Athenaeum established 1836 (in 2nd section). At the end is a 3th section of additional blank pages for pasting in future documents.

Providence Library Company materials in the 1st section of the compilation include a set of typescript copies made in 1899 from original documents of the Providence Library Company:
  • "Rules" (dated 1768)
  • "Act of Incorporation" (dated 1798)
  • "Act of Incorportion" amendments (dated 1817)
  • "By-Laws and Regulations of the Providence Library Company" (undated)


1899

Series 2. Catalogs

Container Description Date
Archives Closet 1, Shelf 1, Item 1 Providence Library Company … Catalogue
1753 December - 1762 December
Archives Closet 1, Shelf 1, Item 4 Catalogue of all the books belonging to the Providence Library
1768
Archives Closet 1, Box 2, Folder 1 Providence Library Company … includes "Catalogue of Prov. Lib."
Contents Note: Manuscript. Bound with Providence Library Company miscellaneous papers, ca. 1815-1833. Includes 1 printed item, a list of missing books, 3rd Nov. 2 copies.

1815
Archives Closet 1, Shelf 1, Item 5 Charter and by-laws of the Providence Library Company and a Catalogue of the books of the Library
Contents Note: Photocopy. Published: Providence, Miller and Hutchens, 1818. 46 pages. 2 copies. Bound with Charter and By-Laws.

1818

Series 3. Collection records

Container Description Date
Archives Closet 1, Box 1, Folder 1 Books saved from the fire of 1758
Contents Note: Manuscript.

1759?
Archives Closet 1, Box 1, Folder 6 List of books missing from Providence Library Co.
1799 September 29
Archives Closet 5, Shelf 1, Item 3 Providence Library Company charging book
Contents Note: Manuscript. Bound notebook (approx. 9-1/2 x 15 inches). Spine wrapper title: Providence Library Company. 100 pages.

1815-1819
Archives Closet 5, Shelf 1, Item 4 Providence Library Company charging book
Contents Note: Manuscript. Bound notebook (approx. 7 x 16 inches). Spine wrapper title: Providence Library Company. 400 pages.

1819-1828