J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, November 11, 2013

Lecture on the Library Patrons of Colonial Newport, 18 Nov.

On Monday, 18 November, the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester will host a lecture by Sean Moore titled “The Redwood Receipt Books and Newport Slavers: A Bio-Bibliographical Inquiry into the Borrowing Records of Early America's Premier Slave-Trading Port.”

That title doesn’t really make clear what this talk is about unless you’re already into the history of the book. “The Redwood” is a circulating library founded in Rhode Island in 1747. Its “Receipt Books” and “Borrowing Records” preserve some of the patrons who were looking at its books. That’s allowed Moore, a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, to profile some of colonial Newport’s most eager readers.

Or, as his lecture description says:
Rarely do scholars find evidence of the reception of works, but the Redwood Library’s receipt books from eighteenth-century Newport, Rhode Island, present the opportunity to do a bio-bibliographical analysis of some of the Redwood’s readers and perhaps move us towards an understanding of readers’ tastes.

The surviving receipt books are records of what books were borrowed from the library during a five year period from 1756-1761, and were kept by Ezra Stiles, the librarian of the Redwood and future president of Yale University. These printed forms list three blanks per page, and are filled in cursive handwriting with the title of the book, the cash deposit to borrow it, the name of the borrower, and the librarian’s signature. Most of the names have been torn out of them, the custom at the time being to tear out the name of the borrower after the book was returned. Whether this was done to protect the privacy of readers is an open question, but the important thing for my research is that many of the names were not torn out, or at least not completely.

This evidence of who was reading what books is not only of interest to book history, however, but also provides the chance to do what D.F. McKenzie and Jerome McGann described as a “sociology” of the text that considers the possible motives of the readers who were wealthy enough to pay the deposit on a book within what some historians have called early America’s premier slave shipping port. This paper, accordingly, will explore the role of the philanthropy of slave traders and owners in financing the library’s collection and argue that the receipt books give us insight into the financial interests of readers and the possible reasons why they might have been borrowing particular books.
This seminar will take place at 5:00 P.M. in the A.A.S.’s Goddard-Daniels House, 190 Salisbury Street in Worcester. Refreshments will be provided afterwards. If you plan to attend, please reserve a space with Ann-Cathrine Rapp by this Friday.

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