The Library Company was originally intended to supply useful books to young tradesmen, and the most useful books of all were those about science and technology. Before the rise of specialized libraries such as the Franklin Institute in the second third of the 19th century, this was probably the largest collection in America of books in those subjects. Though some important American contributions to scientific literature had been made by that date, most of the Library Company’s collections in this area consisted of books published in Britain and the Continent of Europe. Our 1835 printed catalog included 232 fine-print pages of books classified under “Sciences and Arts.” This was supplemented by a further 117 pages in the 1837 printed catalog of the Loganian Library, which was another public library absorbed by the Library Company in 1792. The nucleus of the Loganian Library was the personal library of James Logan, which at the time of his death in 1751 was one of the three largest private libraries in the colonies, and the strongest in scientific books. Most of his scientific books predate the founding of the Library Company and most of them were not in English, so they extended the collection of useful books in new directions both in language and chronology.
As American contributions to the literature of science and technology began to proliferate in the 19th century, the Library Company attempted to acquire them all, but by mid-century it began to fall behind. At the same time its collecting of European books began to become more and more selective, and no latter day James Logan ever came along to make up for that lack. This pattern is especially clear in periodical subscriptions. Up to about 1820 all the major British and American scientific periodicals are in the collection, but periodicals in other languages are increasingly sparse. From 1820 to 1860 only the American holdings are strong, and after 1860 gaps are much more numerous in all areas.
In modern times we have filled many of these gaps, especially in American books and periodicals printed before 1860. The most valuable guide to technical literature in early America is Evald Rink’s Technical Americana: A Checklist of Technical Publications Printed Before 1831 (Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus International, 1981). It lists 6,065 imprints, noting the holdings of dozens of libraries, including the Library Company and HSP, though several hundred imprints acquired since 1981 are not noted as ours.
In sum, up to about 1860 the Library Company’s collection of scientific and technical literature is far from complete, but it is probably the best available cross section of the whole range of what was available to the reading public in America at that time. It includes not only all fields, but also all types of literature, from publications of professional scientific societies to popular guides, advertisements, school books, and ephemera. It is especially useful for studying the popular or public discourses of science and technology, because it is not an isolated history of science collection, but rather is part of a collection of general literature that includes all subjects and genres of print.
Evald Rink, Technical Americana: a checklist of technical publications printed before 1831. Millwood, New York: Kraus International Publications, 1981.
A catalogue of the books belonging to the Library Company of Philadelphia : to which is prefixed, a short account of the institution, with the charter, laws, and regulations. Philadelphia: C. Sherman & Co., Printers, 1835.
Catalogue of the books belonging to the Loganian library : to which is prefixed a short account of the institution, with the law for annexing the said library to that belonging to "The Library company of Philadelphia," and the rules regulating the manner of conducting the same. Philadelphia : C. Sherman and Co., printers, 1837.
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