Guest Post: “Libraries in the Atlantic World” Conference Recap

Today’s guest poster, Aaron M. Brunmeier, recaps the recent conference in Liverpool, England. He is a Ph.D. student at Loyola University-Chicago, where he studies print culture, gender, and the public sphere in revolutionary New York City. He is the social media assistant for the Community Libraries Network.


Last week, I finished my minor field exams, lesson-planned for my substitute teacher, and then hopped on a plane headed toward Liverpool for a conference on library history. It was the first of three colloquia organized by the Community Libraries Network and funded by the AHRC. This colloquium, “Libraries in the Atlantic World,” brought scholars of different disciplines from all around the world to share their research and discuss the newest trends in the field at the University of Liverpool, 24-25 Jan. 2014.

Not knowing quite what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter a scholarly community that was both welcoming (especially to a graduate student like myself) and sincere. Presenters demonstrated the utility and significance of library history, not only for library history’s sake, but for the wider academy. Indeed, I realized the significance of doing library history and the ways in which this subject can really serve as a crucial missing piece for the larger historical puzzle. Topics ranged from transatlantic literary investments in the British and Spanish Atlantic, library collections and cultural identities, Atlantic revolutions, the processes involved in reading about the world, and transatlantic associations. And while it would be nice to detail everyone’s paper, I will touch on just some of the many highlights from the conference.

Sean Moore posited that many American libraries, in particular Rhode Island’s Redwood Library, were financed by the slave trade. Moore demonstrated how slave capital underwrote intellectual capital and gave slave traders and plantation owners the means to purchase books in colonial America. David Gary investigated John Mitchell Mason and his efforts to form the first reformed seminary library in the early republic. Mason, an arch-Federalist, considered a library to be one of the most effective means to stem the tide of the Jeffersonians and New Light Evangelicals, in order to bring them back into the Federalist fold. If the library stood as a symbol of Federalist resistance, it also represented the party’s futility to win back Jeffersonian-Republicans, as Mason could never muster enough ministers to join in his mission of providing the people with what he termed “good” (i.e. Federalist) information.

Paper topics were transatlantic in scope, and many of the presenters hailed from outside the U.K. and the U.S. For example, Junia Furtado, a professor at Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil, discussed seditious books in eighteenth-century Brazilian libraries. Furtado examined Brazilian doctor José Vierira Couto’s library, and discovered that religious texts were surprisingly not present in his collections. Among many other genres present, the books that stood out most were works on political and scientific thought. Cuoto and his cohort were libertines seeking independence from Portugal, and by analyzing his library holdings, Furtado shed some light on what influenced their revolutionary thought beyond what we have typically assumed for this time period.

On a related note, Cheryl Knott explained how there has been very little overlap between the historiography of print culture and the historiography of social (or subscription) libraries. Initially, this struck me as odd, but as I thought about it some more, she couldn’t be more right. I would go even further and add that the historiography of library history needs to be better integrated into the social and cultural history of the Atlantic world. It is no longer sufficient to conduct institutional histories of a particular library, whether private or public; we now need to make those histories resonate louder in the Atlantic world and tie their significance to such movements as transatlantic slavery, knowledge commodification and distribution, network formation, sociability, imperial exploration and colonial conquest, and religious developments. The scholars at this conference have helped the Community Libraries Network’s to take a major step forward in the endeavor.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Next Stop, Chicago | Community Libraries

  2. I hope the network publishes these papers as a collection. For the British colonies, I’d like to read more on personal libraries.


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