A Network Analysis of the Founding Fathers’ Favorite Books at the New York Society Library 

Along with exposure to a variety of authors, the Founding Fathers also had an astounding number and array of texts from which to chose amidst the collection at the New York Society Library. The New York Society Library, as the oldest library in New York, did not disappoint; with genres ranging from comedies to histories to magazines, these men had had access to information on nearly any topic about which they wished to read. Yet, among the over 3,000 ledgers accessible in the library’s archives, a beloved few books rose out of the many records. These favorites are texts that were borrowed by more than one Founding Father over the course of the ledgers’ recording dates, from 1789-1805. However, upon examining these “mutually-read” texts, it was difficult to compare their popularity without some sort of visual aid. It is puzzling to consider how the Founding Fathers’ reading interests at the New York Society Library were similar or different, and what these commonly-borrowed books might have indicated about both the educations of these men and their reading habits.


To view the data in this network analysis more closely, click on the image and then zoom in 

In this third data visualization, Palladio was used to examine the possible connections between the Founding Fathers interests in a network analysis format. Referring to the New York Society Library ledger records for all books read by multiple men (extracted through the use of OpenRefine), the data and visualization were overwhelmingly difficult to read. The ledger data was then reorganized in OpenRefine so that only the top five texts that were borrowed by numerous Founding Fathers would be depicted in the network analysis graphic. These five texts (A Universal History, from the Beginning of the World, to the Empire of Charlemagne; The European Magazine and London Review; The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; The Posthumous Works of Frederic II, King of Prussia; and The British Critic) therefore, provide a much more appropriately-sized dataset for this visualization. When entering the data into Palladio, the sources Borrower Name and Text Title were chosen in order to express relationships between the Founding Fathers and the five most-popular books in the simplest form possible. There still remains a lot to be inferred from the network analysis, but the visualization does briefly portray the popularity of the top five books within the New York Society Library’s borrowing records; it allows viewers to conclude that some Founding Fathers had related reading habits and could have influenced each other’s reading interests.

The top two most popular texts among the Founding Fathers are both non-fictional records of information. Functioning almost like an encyclopedia, A Universal History explains detailed accounts of world history from the era of Alexander the Great (approximately 356 B.C.) forward. The second most-frequently borrowed piece from the New York Society Library was The European Magazine and London Review. This text explains the literary, historical, artistic, and political fads surrounding the Founding Fathers and their contemporaries, and is exemplative of the diversity of other popular magazines present in the New York Society Library ledger records. These texts, as the most commonly-identified readings identified in the Founding Fathers’ reading habits, illustrate their shared appetite for historical accounts. This desire to study the traditions and histories of other countries and empires, respecting the ways in which governments have ruled since the even the Ancient Roman empire, is interesting to account for when one remembers that these men were in the process of starting a country of their own (Elkins). A Universal History and The European Magazine and London Review are unique as well in that they were not merely favorites of many readers, but favorites (by far) of specific Founding Fathers. It is clear from the ledger data of our top five texts that Aaron Burr borrowed A Universal History an astonishing 44 times out of the 55 times it was checked out from the New York Society Library, while Roger Alden borrowed The European Magazine and London Review on 17 occasions out of 44 total. Though these details are not especially evident in the network analysis, it is nevertheless easy to see in the visualization that Aaron Burr, Roger Alden, and many of the other men who read these favorite texts were active readers. The Founding Fathers were clearly curious about more than one place and time period, even if they had favorite topics of study.

The three other texts found in the data for top five most popularly-read books were The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; The Posthumous Works of Frederic II, King of Prussia; and The British Critic. While they cover historical and societal topics like the top two favorites do, these three books were borrowed significantly less. Curiously, all three were checked out 26 times each. But similarly to both A Universal History and The European Magazine and London Review, many of these 26 recorded borrows per text were by a single Founding Father. Egbert Beson, for example, was found to have checked out The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (a British historian’s detailed account of Early Rome to Byzantium) 11 times in the ledger records. Nearly all of the records pertaining to the ledgers of The British Critic belonged to William Samuel Johnson, who also was found to be the most well-read Founding Father in our data set. The tendency of these men to read and re-read books also correlates well with observations by political scientists and historians that though the Founding Fathers may have each had a favorite writer, they did have additional reading passions and were not necessarily influenced by one author in particular (Lutz). Although the network analysis does not show how many times each text was borrowed, it does show visually that the Founding Fathers had comparable reading habits.

Additionally, it is vital to mention that these comparisons in reading habits and book popularity have been visualized and analyzed from an extremely limited fraction of the New York Society Library’s borrowing records: only the top five texts. These records are heavily weighted towards certain Founding Fathers, and completely fail to address the reading habits of the other men who visited the library. While exploring solely the top five texts in the ledgers can be limiting, the value of having a legible network analysis visualization was too important to ignore. It connects the Founding Fathers beyond their roles in America’s revolution and creation. Anyone who views the ledgers’ data in accordance with this visualization can understand how these men might have used the New York Society Library to both entertain themselves and further their educations. They may have been scholars and revolutionaries, but the Founding Fathers had favorite books just as people today do.