A Map of the Areas of the World in which the New York Society Library’s Authors Wrote their Books

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With data available from over 3,000 New York Society Library ledger entries, the task of determining the initial sources of its literature can appear daunting. The Founding Fathers who frequented the NYSL certainly had favorite authors amongst the books they borrowed, and the chances of these men having similar interests was high. Yet, it is difficult to directly determine from recorded data the (potentially foreign) areas from which they were influenced; the information provided for these books—merely author name—does not answer this question of location, or pinpoint any connections between the most commonly-read authors and visitors to the NYSL. Instead, these ledger records simply seem to indicate which books were most popular, and therefore, which ten authors the Founding Fathers read most often: Charlotte Turner Smith; Edward Gibbon; John Moore; F. & C. Rivington; Frederick II, King of Prussia; Tobias Smollett; Fanny Burney; Voltaire; Henry Fielding; and Stéphanie-Félicité, Comtesse de Genlis.

Through additional research on these ten authors’ backgrounds, the above data visualization was created using the online program Google My Maps. It illustrates that seven of the ten most popular authors lived and wrote in England, while the other three lived and wrote in Germany and Prussia (all in modern-day Germany). The map has been centered with a “default view” of Western Europe as well, since the ledger data (and other research sourced from the included citations) for these top ten texts all pertains to this region of the world. Furthermore, each author location is represented by the icon of a red house in order to signify that all of these places are hometowns (whether in their initial home countries or countries of exile), and not just cities repeatedly visited by the writers. None of the icons are identifiable by author’s name upon first glance at the data visualization, however; this was intentional, as the map is meant to answer the above research question. Hence, it only depicts the general trends between the authors’ writing locations (unless opened to view the author’s descriptions and specific relevance to the NYSL ledgers): much of the preferred texts at the NYSL comes from Europe, so the Founding Fathers appeared to have thoroughly enjoyed the themes of European literature.

Like any other geographic map, its focus is on places- in this case, where the authors of the ten most often borrowed works lived while writing. It shows that these books did not stem from one particular nationality (or even two), but were authored by European writers from a variety of countries. It also demonstrates that though the Founding Fathers were American citizens when reading these texts (1789-1805) and obviously very much involved in developing a new country, they were still actively involved in the affairs, values, and ideas of their ancestors and contemporaries “across the pond” (Wolverton). The interests of these educated men surpassed geographic and nationalistic limitations.

Even though their reading choices were not completely homogenous, they did overlap to some extent. Many of the Founding Fathers had a common curiosity towards European texts that derived, perhaps, from their classical educations (Elkins, Wolverton). Encompassing international Enlightenment philosophy, feminist sentimentalism, and world histories, the Founding Fathers’ borrowing habits diversified their reading. They may have concerned themselves with European literature in an attempt to reference global trends (and not just American ones) in much the same way that engagement with works by female authors allowed them to escape the confines of traditional gender attitudes (see data visualization 1).

There is, of course, the possibility that books from such a limited geographic area (Western Europe, and predominantly the United Kingdom, Germany, and Prussia) were the most prevalent type of literature sourced to the NYSL because they were the texts most often missing from the Founding Fathers’ home libraries. It is easy to assume that these men had limited reading interests if one were to exclusively base an assessment of their borrowing trends on this map. Rather, the Founding Fathers (like the authors they read) appear to continually exemplify a varied population connected by their mutual educational interests.