The main reading room at the Boston Public Library may be the most wonderful space for study that I've ever seen. I'm stunned that I'm not still there. . . Once again, this is not my photo. I brought my digital camera and forgot the cable that attaches to the computer. Sigh. My pics will show up eventually.
The thing that took me to the BPL is that it houses 2,700 volumes of John Adams' 3,500 volume personal library. Mind you, it's not the easiest thing in the world to find. It's on the third floor in the Rare Book and Manuscript Room, a beautifully appointed space at the end of a maze of seemingly dead-end corridors and tatty storage areas. Odd beyond odd.
Why is Adams' library so important? Because information is important, that's why, and in Adams' day, books were the only avenue to much of that information. We are so used to multiple channels of learning -- texts, video, Internet, even teachers -- we forget that in the 18th Century, if you wanted to learn about anything, you needed a book. Since lending libraries wouldn't be around for another 200 years, you needed to OWN the book, or have access to someone willing to loan you such a valuable thing.
Books, even those published in America, were expensive to produce. People didn't waste publishing resources on trivia, so you would not see copies of, say, Lusty Witches of Salem. What almost every household did have was a Bible, and often some books of sermons, and maybe a translation of a Latin rhetorician, to teach logic. After that, the more wealthy households would have books of poetry from England and France, works of major Roman thinkers like Cicero and Cato, and sometimes the philosophical volumes of Rousseau, Locke, and Kant.
Reading these works would be an education in itself, and true education was impossible without access to books. This is why Benjamin Franklin's ready access to a library is so important. He needs to know so many things, and books are his only avenue for finding them. Remember, his father didn't keep him in school, so he absolutely had to self-educate.
Adams, being a lawyer, had a somewhat specialized library of law books, many of whom he bought from the estate of his foremost law professor. He also had some amazingly interesting books that he commented on extensively in the margins. The surprising member of this collection? A very heavily annotated copy of An Historical and Moral View of the Progress of the French Revolution, by Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Wallstonecraft (later) Shelley, author of the novel Frankenstein. That Adams owned and extensively used this volume is astounding, given Wallstonecraft's well-known assertions that women were intellectually equal to men and should be given equal education and civil rights.
I would like to see what Adams wrote in the margins of this book, but I lack the nerve. Anyone at all can request access to Adam's books; you only have to know the name of the book and have a plausible reason for wanting to study it. If it's not out touring as part of an exhibit, the staff will bring it to you in a small reading room, and keep a beady eye on you while you use it. I couldn't bring myself to do this, because curiosity isn't a good enough reason to be allowed to handle a book, and I wasn't really going to lie about being an Adams' scholar.