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The Armstrong Family, c. 1910. Front row, left to right: Maitland Armstrong, Helen Armstrong, Ham Armstrong, Margaret Armstrong.
The Armstrong Family, c. 1910. Front row, left to right: Maitland Armstrong, Helen Armstrong, Ham Armstrong, Margaret Armstrong.

Generations of Readers at the Society Library

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

In January I posted a piece on our blog about the need for a history of reading in New York City, arguing (surprise, surprise) that our very own New York Society Library is one of the best places to start. And while the focus of much of my work and writing on the history of reading at this Library has focused on our early members, lately I've been drawn to the stories of reading Library members from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I'm not the only one on the trail of the nineteenth-century Society Library; my colleague Sara Holliday recently posted a great piece on this period and looked to our archives to tell readers about the Library hosting now-canonical writers of the day like Emerson and Poe as well as the all-but-forgotten Hutchinson Family Singers.

So last month when I attended an excellent conference on publishers' book bindings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, part of which highlighted the work of New York book designer and illustrator Margaret Armstrong, I immediately rushed back to the Library to see if she or her sister Helen (a writer and artist) popped up anywhere in our archives. I knew that their father, the artist and diplomat David Maitland Armstrong, and their brother Hamilton Fish Armstrong, (longtime editor of Foreign Affairs) were Trustees, and that this family of thinkers and artists traced their roots to other older New York families like the Stuyvesants, Bleeckers, Neilsons, and Fishes, all of whose names I know partly from seeing their reading records in our City Readers database. A promising lead, I thought.

So I walked into Stack 8 to see what I'd find in our circulation records. I was amazed by the ravenous readers I discovered in the Armstrong's family records, yet slightly frustrated because, like today,* records were kept for the Maitland Armstrong household, and don't indicate who, exactly, borrowed what. Margaret and Helen were fascinating women and lead adventurous, creative lives, and I wanted to explore their reading records to see if they had any discernible tastes, or if their lives as artists and writers were reflected in their reading. (I'm also always totally prepared, and hoping for, something completely unexpected to come to light in someone's reading.) And while the Library's Margaret Armstrong Collection of the books they owned as children provides more a specific (and charming) view into Helen and Margaret's juvenile literary tastes, it doesn't speak to the writers and ideas that might have informed, for example, Margaret's fiction or Helen's designs for stained glass windows. Without knowing who borrowed what — and I know that Helen and Margaret were both active readers, as Marion King describes them as such several times in her Books and People — I thought I'd arrived at a dead end.

Then I started wondering what the records for the Armstrong households, and so many other households whose borrowing records survive in our archives, have to say about the place of books and reading in New York family life on a grander scale. (Family is perhaps too specific a word, as some of our readers lived with their partners, like former members Willa Cather and Edith Lewis, and studies of their reading lives would be equally fascinating.)  And because so many members of the Armstrong, Fish, and Bleecker families — who can also be traced back to the Livingston, Stuyvesant, Schuyler, van Cortlandt, and van Rensselaer families — have long early reading histories viewable in City Readers, it's exciting to think about what we can learn about these New York families not just as individual readers at identifiable moments in time, but over a century (or two!) of reading and sharing books at home. A number of scholars have done or are working on studies of groups of readers. Jonathan Rose's The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes is a classic example, as is William Gillmore-Lehne's Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life: Material and Cultural Life in Rural New England, 1750-1835. Right now, Anthony Grafton, Jennifer Rampling, and a group of graduate students at Princeton University are working on a study of the Winthrop Family and their reading and annotating across generations and continents, working primarily from books in the Society Library's own Winthrop Collection. The possibilities are (almost) endless for studies of dynastic reading habits traceable in the Society Library's archives, and as we continue to develop and expand City Readers the stories of these individuals will come to light in new and exciting ways.

As a proper study of the Armstrongs and their predecessors at the Library is fodder for a book project and not a blog post, I've created a Flickr slideshow to introduce our readers to these families and the objects in our collections that document this very unique aspect of their lives. In addition to a snapshot of records we have for the Armstrong family, I also photographed records of another family of voracious readers, headed by William C. Maitland, and two contrasting accounts: Elizabeth Shaw Melville's (she remained an active borrower after Herman's death) and the account for the Mother Superior of the Sisters of Saint John the Baptist. Click here to have a look for yourself, and leave a comment to let us know what you've found!

The Armstrong Family in the Archive



*The Library continues to retain electronic records of books borrowed under each individual, household, or educational membership account; however these records are completely private. Library members can choose to review their borrowing history by logging into the Library's website and selecting one of the My Tab menu options, but all information displayed is visible only to patrons and never to staff members. In other words, we will never share any of our members' personal information, including borrowing histories, and we take very seriously the privacy of the Library members of the distant past whose borrowing histories are preserved in our archives.


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