Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Adams' Library and other Curiosities

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.


  1. I love the irony of your account at the library: people who seem to adore knowledge, eyeing you begrudgingly. I don't understand your hesitance, as if being a college teacher studying literature isn't a good enough excuse... I may envy your trip to the library there, out of anything you may see. Go get those Franklin notes!

  2. Yeah, I may have to man up and actually touch an Adams' book. I didn't even mention that the security guard started following me around, because I was exploring all sorts of nooks and crannies. Show me a library, and I'm going to make myself at home.

  3. Police State! Lol. Our founding fathers would've probably told that guard to back off. You ever get to the Adams book? Nudge, nudge...

  4. That fact that you were scared still puzzles me. Your search for knowledge to know what he wrote seems like there would be no better reason to lie. To be one of the few to study that would have been incredible. I'm sorry Mrs. Hanks dont take tthis personal but your a wimp. This is Adam French I have to post as ananymous because i cant figure this damn thing out!

  5. Mrs. Hanks you are the most out spoken loudest teacher I have ever had, but believe me I love it. You will probably be the only New River teacher I will ever remember and yes when you wrote you were too afraid to touch one of Adams books it did surprise me. Then a second later I realized that maybe you just have such respect for knowledge that you were afraid of damaging something. (I helped you with your Mountain dew spill) HAhaha