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Virginia Libraries

Current editors:
Beth DeFrancis defrancb@georgetown.edu, Editor
John Connolly jconnolly@nsl.org, Assistant Editor

April/May/June 2000
Volume 46, Number 2

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Recovering William Byrd's Library: The First Virginia Library History Award

by John T. Kneebone

A year ago the Virginia Center for the Book and the Library of Virginia Foundation initiated what we optimistically intended to be an annual award for the best work, of whatever kind and format, on Virginia library history. The purpose of the award is to honor exemplary research and writing, which we hope will encourage librarians, archivists, and historians to continue laying the groundwork for an eventual full history of libraries in the Old Dominion.

The first Virginia Library History Award was presented to Kevin J. Hayes for his book The Library of William Byrd of Westover, published in 1997 by Madison House Publishers, Inc., in cooperation with the Library Company of Philadelphia. Hayes is an associate professor of English at the University of Central Oklahoma. In making the award, the judges cited Hayes's meticulous scholarship and also commended the publisher for the elegant appearance of the book. The Library of William Byrd of Westover, they predicted, will have a long life as a standard reference work.

William Byrd II (1674-1744) assembled the largest library in the colonial South at Westover, his plantation on the James River in Charles City County, Virginia. After his death, the library, then some 2,600 titles, was dispersed, but not before John Stretch, a bookbinder from Williamsburg, cataloged its contents. Stretch recorded only the short and often cryptic titles that bookbinders had inscribed on the spines of William Byrd's books.

Combining the skills of a historian, a bibliographer, and a literary scholar, Kevin J. Hayes reconstructed Byrd's library, volume by volume. A 103-page biographical introduction describes Byrd and his world, and provides a history of the library. From the scant clues in Stretch's catalog of short titles, many of them in French and Latin, Hayes identified the books that were in the library and provided extensive bibliographical information about them. From Byrd's diaries and other writings, Hayes also extracted apt quotations showing how Byrd used his library.

The library included volumes on history, travel, drama, divinity, music, philosophy, agriculture, gardening, etiquette, art, and more. The books were written in English, Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Dutch, and Hebrew. The library was a reflection of Byrd's wide-ranging interests and attainments. He read Homer, Ovid, Virgil, Shakespeare, Jonson, and Dryden. He was prominent in the colony's political affairs; the library included numerous law books and works on English government (including the Magna Carta). He used his books on plants to identify Virginia species and to compare them with Old World plants, corresponding regularly with leading naturalists in England about his discoveries. The books on human anatomy and medicine served him in dealing with illnesses in his family and among the slaves on his lands. He even drew on these books for an unpublished essay on the plague. According to entries in his Secret Diary, William Byrd read three or four times daily, usually beginning the day with the Bible in Hebrew and "some Greek" (p. 35).1

Hayes's Library of William Byrd of Westover offers a browser many pleasures. For example, one of the spine titles, Newton's Ladies Philosophy (p. 310), caught my eye. Hayes identified it as Francesco Algarotti's Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophy Explain'd for the Use of the Ladies, published in 1739. That title raises the question of how the women in Byrd's household might have used the library. One of Byrd's favorite volumes was John Tillotson's Sermons and he recorded in his Secret Diary that his wife "read a sermon in Dr. Tillotson to me" (p. 351).

What else in that great library did Lucy Parke Byrd read? As it happens, Kevin Hayes investigated that question in his Colonial Woman's Bookshelf.2 He used inventories from estates, wills, and similar documents to identify the books that colonial women owned and read. Traditionally, historians have judged the extent of literacy by the ability to sign one's name, usually by examining wills for signatures. We know, though, that reading was taught prior to and separately from writing in the eighteenth century, and thus using writing as a test of literacy probably underestimates the extent of reading in colonial America. Women were less likely than men to be taught Latin, Greek, and French, the languages of scholarship and diplomacy, but many of the volumes in Byrd's library were written in English. Is it possible, then, that the volume labeled Newton's Ladies Philosophy was, as the title suggests, one of the books that the women at Westover read? In fact, Maria Taylor Byrd, whom William Byrd married following the death of his first wife, was quite well read for her time. In his only surviving letter to her (written in Greek), Byrd declared, "When indeed I learned that you also spoke Greek, the tongue of the Muses, I went completely crazy about you" (p. 62).

My interest in what William Byrd and his household read and how they used his library is partly a consequence of reading recent essays on library history by Wayne A. Wiegand.3 A professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Library and Information Studies and co-director of the Center for the History of Print Culture in Modern America, Wiegand is not only a distinguished practitioner of library history himself but also simultaneously the field's strongest advocate and sternest critic.

In the critic's mode, Wiegand complains that much of the past half-century's scholarship on library history is "of marginal value to the profession and of limited value to historians working in other sectors of American history." He identifies two main reasons for this weakness. First, libraries and librarianship are assumed to be "a basic social good," and the histories tend to celebrate the great institutions and the profession's heroes, rather than critically analyzing their roles in society. Have libraries and librarians fostered a democratic culture and an informed citizenry? Or have they merely reflected social trends and reinforced social hierarchies? Wiegand concludes that we actually know "relatively little" about the library's role in "retarding or facilitating" social change in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Second, library historians have tended to write from "the inside out." The focus has been "on the institution and the expertise used by the people within the institution itself." Library historians have given insufficient attention to the "people who used (or did not use) the institution, why they used (or did not use) it, and whether the expertise honed within that institution´┐Żwas inclusive for some, exclusive for others."4

As an example, Wiegand points to the American Library Association's original commitment to provide the "best reading," which meant primarily edifying works of nonfiction. Circulation records show, however, that popular fiction was always the type of reading that the majority of users borrowed from their libraries.5 How did the prescriptions of librarians and the preferences of readers interact over time? he asks. Circulation records, collection development policies, acquisition records, and similar documents become crucial resources for a library history that gives proper attention to the people who used (or did not use) their library.

Writing in his other mode as an advocate for library history, Wiegand sees signs of "a more richly analytical, more deeply contextualized" scholarship. In particular, he proposes that library history will benefit from current work in the burgeoning field of print culture studies. Whereas the field of book history examines authorship and publishing as well as reading, the field of print culture emphasizes that books are not the only or even the most important medium for printed information in people's lives. A key theme, therefore, is to look at reading "from the reader's viewpoint" and attempt "to determine how readers appropriated what they read for their own needs." Wiegand observes that "American library history is an excellent site for the study of print culture history." If that approach shifts libraries and librarians away from center stage, it also has promise for providing a deeper understanding of the roles of libraries and librarians in the lives of their users.6

All of which leads back to the Virginia Library History Award. There are many facets of Virginia's library history worth examining, and we hope the award will encourage the innovative scholarship that Professor Wiegand champions. There is much to be done. As an editor of the Library of Virginia's Dictionary of Virginia Biography, I recognize the continuing need for biographies of library leaders, of those Virginians who founded institutions, built collections, and provided valuable services to the public. We need to identify them, to recover their achievements, and to analyze their significance.

We also need bibliographers. On learning of his award, Hayes expressed pride in making a contribution to the history of libraries in Virginia. "The Library of Virginia contains numerous estate inventories listing the contents of many private libraries in early Virginia," he said. "I hope my work, The Library of William Byrd of Westover, will help others reconstruct...other early Virginia libraries."7 Such historical bibliographies require hard effort, but they also promise to expand our understanding of books and reading in the lives of our ancestors.

We need bibliographies about relevant scholarly work already completed, too. Richard Duncan's classic Theses and Dissertations in Virginia History: A Bibliography lists only five works under the subject heading of "libraries." It seems certain that a diligent search of the library literature would turn up more. The School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a searchable database of masters theses done there on its web site.8 A search on the keyword "Virginia" not only reveals how many persons named Virginia attended the school but also brings up a good number of theses on topics in Virginia library history. What has been done at other schools?

We also need bibliographies about resources for fresh scholarship. How many Virginia libraries have archives that document their own pasts? What sorts of records do we have about the professionalization of librarianship in Virginia? Where are the circulation records or other documents that might help tell how people in a community used their library?

Above all, we need more students of library history. As Wiegand puts it, "the field is too large for the number of scholars currently giving it scrutiny."9 Even with help in publicizing the award from the ALA Library History Round Table, the Society for Documentary Editing, the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP), and H-LIS, the Internet list for library history, there has not been a single nomination for the Virginia Library History Award this year. Rather than making an award for the sake of making an award, the board of the Virginia Center for the Book has extended the deadline for entries in the competition to 31 August 2001. With another year to publicize the award, to inspire new research, to explain why Virginia library history matters, we are confident that we can present the next award to a work as interesting and exemplary as Kevin J. Hayes' Library of William Byrd of Westover.

Please help us spread the word about the Virginia Library History Award. In addition to the honor of the award, $1,000 goes to the winning author(s). To be eligible for the next competition, works must be completed (published or unpublished) between 1 September 1999 and 31 August 2001. Please send nominations by 15 September 2001 to Virginia Library History Awards, Virginia Center for the Book at the Library of Virginia, 800 East Broad Street, Richmond, Virginia 23219-8000.

Endnotes

  1. Unless otherwise stated, page numbers refer to The Library of William Byrd of Westover, by Kevin J. Hayes (Madison, Wis.: Madison House, in cooperation with the Library Company of Philadelphia, 1997).
  2. Kevin J. Hayes, A Colonial Woman's Bookshelf (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1996), 4. Hayes's other works include Captain John Smith: A Reference Guide (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991) and Folklore and Book Culture (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997).
  3. Wayne A. Wiegand, "Tunnel Vision and Blind Spots: What the Past Tells Us about the Present; Reflections on the Twentieth-Century History of American Librarianship," Library Quarterly 69 (Jan. 1999): 1-32; and "American Library History Literature, 1947-1997: Theoretical Perspectives?" Libraries and Culture 35 (winter 2000): 4-34. See also his "Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Why Don't We Have Any Schools of Library and Reading Studies?" Journal of Education for Library and Information Science 38 (fall 1997): 314-326.
  4. "American Library History Literature, 1947-1997," 6, 12.
  5. Ibid., 6, 21-22. See also "Tunnel Vision and Blind Spots," 8-11.
  6. "American Library History Literature, 1947-1997," 19-20, 22; "Tunnel Vision and Blind Spots," 25-26.
  7. "Kevin J. Hayes Wins First Virginia Library History Award," The Library of Virginia: Official Newsletter, No. 137 (Jan./Feb. 2000), 4.
  8. Richard R. Duncan, Theses and Dissertations in Virginia History: A Bibliography (Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1986); the searchable database is at http://dbserv.ils.unc.edu/projects/masters/queries/MPsearch.html.
  9. "Tunnel Vision and Blind Spots," 23.

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