After its first ten years, the Library Company’s 1741 printed catalog listed a set of Montaigne’s Essays (London, 1685), which came into the collection as a gift from Benjamin Franklin. The same page listed copies of James Thomson’s The Seasons ( London, 1733) and John Gay’s Fables ( London, 1732). In the early years, the Library Company acquired literature as gifts or, through an agent, from London bookdealers. In later decades of the 18th century, some American imprints such as Philip Freneau’s A Poem, on the Rising Glory of America(Philadelphia, 1772) were added, but the bulk of the collection remained London or continental imprints, or American reprints thereof.
In the 19th century, Librarian Lloyd P. Smith developed a system of classification for the much enlarged collection, which he presented at a library conference in 1853, decades before Melvil Dewey developed his classification system. In the Smith system, still used for parts of the collection, the letter “O” represents all of belles lettres, from grammars to periodicals. Appropriately for the time, the category of poetry is more finely subdivided than fiction: poetry was a large and immensely respected literary genre. Today, the collection includes poetry by many now-obscure writers, especially women. The collection also contains much verse by classical authors and sets of British poets as well as American works. Similarly, the drama section contains classical authors, Shakespeare, and French plays, as well as American drama.
The de-emphasis on fiction reflects the ambivalence regarding novels in the larger culture. The leading bibliographies of American fiction comprise three volumes, but moralists throughout the period railed against fiction as time-wasting and mind-tainting. Library Company member James Rush (1786-1869), for example, left a bequest to the Library Company with many specific stipulations, including that the collection not include everyday novels. However, today the collection includes much fiction, which provides researchers with useful data on everyday life in all strata of society, on attitudes toward slavery and African Americans, on urban life, and on many other topic of interest to social historians and literary scholars. The curators also continue to acquire literature, especially to increase the holdings of marginal items such as broadside verse, mendicant’s books, and pornography to build a collection representing all literary genres, even those deemed inappropriate by James Rush and his ilk.
The final category within Smith’s belles lettres section was serials. From the earliest years, the Library has subscribed to periodicals. Interestingly, the London publication the Gentleman’s Magazine started publication in our first year, 1731, and the collection includes the set from the original subscription. The extensive collection of periodicals and newspapers, like fiction, reflects elements of the broader culture for scholars. Pathbreaking recent work has involved the reappraisal of literature that appeared in periodicals, new understanding of the extent that writers relied on payment from publication in magazines and particularly in literary annuals for their livelihood, the role of reviews in shaping the literary marketplace, and other topics.
Jacob Blanck. Bibliography of American Literature (New Haven, 1955-1991). 9 vols.
Gwenn Davis and Beverly A. Joyce. Poetry by Women to 1900: A Bibliography of American and British Writers ( Toronto, 1991). See also their compilations listing personal writings, drama, and short fiction by women.
Lyle H. Wright. American Fiction, 1774-1850. 2nd rev. ed. ( San Marino, Calif., 1969). See also his compilations for 1851-1875 and for 1876-1900. http://www.letrs.indiana.edu/w/wright2/