When Chris Phillips discovered that the original circulation records of Easton Library Company still existed, he set out to capture the invaluable information and learn what Eastonians read at that time. The company was the precursor to Easton Area Public Library.
The associate professor of English is leading an effort to convert the 19th Century handwritten ledgers of the company into an electronic database that is set to go live at year’s end. Not only is the digital humanities project on the cutting edge—among only a handful of others in progress around the country—it is more rare in the fact that the Easton records begin in 1811. The magazine Slate notes that “precious little data from libraries before 1860 exists.”
Phillips chaired the 10-member faculty steering committee for a four-year, $700,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to advance the increasing participation of faculty and students in the digital humanities. He has worked on the library project with EXCEL Scholars Gavin Jones ’14, Eric Bockol ’16, Vanessa Milan ’16, Cat Miller ’16, Gigi O’Hanlon ’16, Sean Cavanagh ’18, and Alena Principato ’16, as well as Eric Luhrs, Skillman Library head of digital scholarship services.
So what did the company’s members read? The largest book category was fiction, accounting for 40 percent, followed by periodicals, history, travels, belles-lettres (artistic and imaginative literature), biography, and science/medicine.
“The concept of a free library where local citizens could check out books at no cost did not arise until after the Civil War,” says Phillips. “In Easton, a group of citizens decided to form the library company to loan books among each other; they sold 100 shares to those who wanted to borrow books.”
The price to join was $4, and the annual fee was $2. Circulation records show that members were allowed to let close relatives borrow under their “membership.” Of the original 100 members, three were women.
Within four years the company could afford to pay a librarian $1.50 a month, and to begin construction of a building on land donated by Samuel Sitgreaves. The red brick building from that time still stands at the corner of North Second and Church streets.
In 1860, the collection had grown to 4,000 volumes. By comparison, the library at Lafayette College, where classes began in 1832, had only 1,000 volumes, most of which belonged to literary societies or faculty members.
Some of the more interesting books in the collection: