From Bookcase to Building

Constitution of the third Social Library in the Town of Lincoln, Mass., 1840

Opening page of Lincoln's third Social Library Constitution, 1840.

"There is only so much room on the bookshelf."

The late 18th and 19th centuries saw the rise of Social Libraries in the United States with the thought that shared texts could create a common social and learning experiences and foster private discussions.  Pooling of funds enabled a more varied selection of books balancing the Classics, philosophy, and natural sciences with the more fashionable novel.  These were subscription or proprietary libraries as opposed to other forms of existing libraries.

Lincoln was no exception to this movement.  Men with such enduring names such as Stearns, Wheeler, Tarbell, Hartwell, Hoar, and Farrar banded together to form the first of Lincoln's three Social Libraries (1798, 1821-1840, 1840-1871).

The various Constitutions began with desires for "the promotion of literature and useful information" (first Constitution) with each organization changing with the times - allowing women to become shareholders (1821), and attending to the needs of selecting literature to aid in forming the "character of affectionate and dutiful children, wise and understanding men, (and) peaceful and patriotic citizens" (1840).


Portrait of George Tarbell above bookcase

Portrait of George Tarbell hangs above a bookcase in the library's reading room, ca. 1910s.

From Bookcase to Building

In a builder's manual from the 18th century the term "library" refers to a bookcase - the display of books in a gentleman's study.  The bookcase purchased by the First Lincoln Social Library became the mainstay of the collection, housing volumes in the homes of the Society's librarians.  In 1871, books from the Social Library joined those of other libraries in town to evolve into the Lincoln Public Library's initial collection.


"The foundation of American social libraries confirmed that civilization was transportable and sustainable."

With the diffusion of printed books in the early modern era, a library gave form to a newly intimate experience - reading!  Off-the-shelf ready-made "libraries" marketed by publishers in the late 19th century were retailed on a national scale by Sears, Roebuck, and Company (ca. 1903).

From Bookcase to Building