University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Farmers' Library

Volume II · November 1946 · Number 1
The Farmers' Library

The Farmers' Library of Wheatland was one of the several private subscription libraries organized in Western New York after the Legislature passed a bill authorizing the formation of such companies in 1796. Although it is not the oldest of these, The Farmers' Library is one of the most interesting, because it has survived more nearly intact than any of the others. In the [Department of Rare Books and Special Collections] of Rush Rhees Library are more than eight hundred volumes from this collection, most of them with The Farmers' Library bookplate and shelf number, their generally battered condition and crude binding repairs testifying eloquently that they came from a library intended for use.

In addition there is a notable collection of related manuscript material. This includes a volume containing the minutes of the annual meetings of the proprietors from the organization of the library in January, 1805, until the final meeting in 1870. This volume also contains miscellaneous financial accounts and, at the end, a partial catalogue of the books. Then there are two separate catalogue volumes. The first, which was started in 1806, lists the books in order of accession, and seems to have been used until 1846 or 1847. The highest number in this catalogue is 1376. The second, which is headed "Catalogue of Farmers' Library made out in 1847 and continued since," is arranged alphabetically, and continues until 1870, when the library ceased to function. Other important items include a notebook showing borrowings from the library for the period 1855-57, a volume listing the treasurer's accounts from 1866 to 1871, and two printed catalogues, evidently used by the proprietors in the decade of the thirties. Finally, there are over a dozen miscellaneous documents, including bills for books purchased from Rochester booksellers around 1840, letters pertaining to the business of the library, and a history of The Farmers' Library by Phillip Garbutt, the last librarian, from whose family the collection was acquired in 1934.

Taken as a whole, the items I have been describing constitute one of the more notable library treasures of the University. To the local historian the value of The Farmers' Library is obvious and great. To the student of American intellectual history the collection offers detailed evidence as to the intellectual interests of a pioneer community in the early stages of its development. (It might be observed in passing that the tastes which are reflected in this instance would do credit to a community with far greater claims to culture and sophistication.) In the space remaining I should like to give an account of the history and organization of The Farmers' Library, ending with an attempt to give some notion of the books it contained.

The first constitution, dated January 6, 1805, established the basic pattern for the conduct of the library, even though there were two later constitutions, in 1822 and 1837, and minor changes in procedure were made all through the history of the organization. According to the first constitution, a person could become a proprietor of the library by purchasing a share, which originally cost a dollar and a half, although later it went up to three dollars. In addition, each member had to pay an annual tax, which fluctuated between fifty cents and a dollar during the history of the library. The governing body consisted of five trustees, a treasurer, and a librarian, with the same person usually serving as treasurer and librarian. The trustees, who were chosen annually by the entire membership, appointed the treasurer and librarian, handled the money, and superintended the purchase of books, guided by the recommendations of the proprietors.

Originally the entire company met every three months for the purpose of returning all books, but this practice soon lapsed, and throughout most of the history of the library the proprietors assembled only at the annual meeting, which was held on the second Tuesday in March. The trustees continued their quarterly meetings, however, and transacted all necessary business at those times. There was originally a rather full schedule of prescribed fines for overdue books, damages and the like, but by 1826 it was decided to leave all fines to the discretion of the trustees. The first constitution prohibited the use of library books by nonmembers, but this rule was evidently difficult to enforce, for the revision of 1822 provides for what might be called associate members, readers who did not own shares, but who paid an annual fee for the privilege of borrowing books from the library. It was the patronage of these readers which helped postpone the dissolution of the library during the lean years of the Civil War period.

At the annual meeting in March, 1811, it was decided to incorporate the library, and, on May 31 following, the certificate of incorporation was "recorded in the office of the clerk of the county of Genesee." A list of constituent members of the library, compiled in 1855, on the fiftieth anniversary, includes the following names: Peter Sheffer, Cyrus Douglass, James Wood, Christopher Laybourn, John Garbutt, Francis Albright, John Finch, Nathaniel Taylor, Powel Carpenter, and Isaac Scott, the first settler in Scottsville.

Tradition has it that John Garbutt walked to Canandaigua to purchase the first books for the library, and throughout the entire history of the organization members of the Garbutt family were prominent in its affairs. There are very few years when the Garbutts were not represented among the officers of the library. Between 1807 and 1816 John Garbutt was four times a trustee, and in 1821 he was one of the committee of three to revise the constitution. He also served as trustee in 1830 and 1832. On March 13, 1855, the proprietors assembled for the fiftieth anniversary of the library, when it had been planned to have a special speaker, but "on account of the death of John Garbutt, one of the original founders of the Farmers' Library - who died this day, the meeting adjourned for one week." The minutes continue: "It was a circumstance, worthy of remark, that one of the original founders, and a warm patron from the beginning, should die on the fiftyeth anniversary." A week later the members heard the postponed address, which was delivered by the Reverend Dougald McColl. "The subject of the address or at least the drift of it was. The importance of a judicious selection of books to read, and of good habits of reading."

In 1816 it was decided to move the books to the house of William Garbutt, and he served as librarian and treasurer until 1824. His brother, Phillip Garbutt, succeeded him, and in 1830 it was voted "that a room be partitioned off in the chamber of Phillip Garbutt's store for the Library." In 1852 the books were moved to the house of William F. Garbutt, who was to fit shelves for them and present a bill to the library. The minutes for 1853 authorized him "to retain the sum of $1.62 (the amount now due him) from any money belonging to the Library." Robert R. Garbutt served as librarian and treasurer from 1861 to 1865, and in the following year another Phillip Garbutt, the son of William Garbutt, took over and continued in office for the life of the organization. It was this Phillip Garbutt who wrote the first history of The Farmers' Library.

The only unusual event in the normally placid and uneventful history of The Farmers' Library occurred in the decade of the thirties. With the gradual shift of population in the town there developed an agitation to move the library. On March 10, 1835, it was suggested that the library be moved to Scottsville, or that the books be divided, and at least some of them be kept in Scottsville. Another meeting was held on March 17 to discuss the matter further, at which an "unusual number of the members attend[ed] the Library but nothing was done with regard to dividing or moving it." Nothing more happened until 1838 when, in accordance with Articles 9 and 10 of the new constitution adopted in 1837, notice was given that a motion would be made at the next annual meeting to transfer the library to Scottsville. A Scottsville library seems to have been formed during the intervening year, however, for the minutes for 1839 deal chiefly with plans for an equitable division of books. The trustees of The Farmers' Library were empowered to give books to the trustees of the Scottsville Library, and it was voted "that if the said donation be satisfactory it will be considered as a Liquidation of the Shares of such as move to Scottsville." Finally, a date was set at which the trustees would meet to receive the names of those who wished to transfer their rights to the new library.

The last mention of the Scottsville Library occurs in the minutes of March 10, 1840, when it was voted "that if the trustees of the Scottsville library ask for Niles Register, the trustees of this library are required to give them the said work." There has survived a letter to the trustees of The Farmers' Library, dated March 12, 1840, from the Scottsville trustees, asking that the volumes of Niles' Weekly Register be delivered to P. Carpenter. The signers are Ira Carpenter, Caleb Allen, John Z. Reed, F. X. Beckwith, and Duncan McVean. Of these, Carpenter, Reed, and McVean are included in a list of Farmers' Library members in 1836. McVean, interestingly enough, served as trustee of The Farmers' Library nine times between 1840 and 1858. Thus, in 1840 at least, the only year for which we have complete records, he was a trustee of both libraries. What happened to the Scottsville Library I do not know, although it probably did not last very long. In 1867 Ira Carpenter was readmitted to The Farmers' Library on consideration of two dollars already paid, and served as trustee in 1869 and 1870. His readmission may or may not have had something to do with the dissolution of the Scottsville Library. I think it quite possible that further investigation would unearth more information about this descendant of The Farmers' Library.

Since any exhaustive discussion of the books themselves would require more space than is now available, I shall confine myself here to presenting some general impressions derived from a preliminary survey of The Farmers' Library.

The first thirty-odd volumes give a good notion of the ranges of interest represented among the members of the library. Jedidiah Morse's American Universal Geography, in two volumes, is the first work listed. Then comes a set of the Spectator in eight volumes. This is followed by Beattie's Elements of Moral Science. The two volumes ofThe Arabian Nights lasted until 1835, when they wore out. Two other editions are listed in the catalogues, but neither has survived. Goldsmith's Citizen of the World is next on the list, followed by Sir Alexander Mackenzie's Voyages... to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans. Then come Baxter's Saints' Everlasting Rest, Franklin's Works, an abridgment of Goldsmith's History of England, Snowden's The American Revolution, and Bingham's Columbian Orator. Then come three volumes of tracts written by Joseph Towers, and John Hamilton Moore's Young Gentleman and Lady's Monitor and English Teacher's Assistant. We can conclude this list by mentioning William Godwin's Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, two volumes of Hume's Essays, and Charles Varlo's A New System of Husbandry.

One can see from this sampling that the founders of The Farmers' Library were interested in substantial reading matter, principally in the categories of philosophy and religion, history and travel, belles-lettres, and the practical arts. This is the basic pattern followed throughout the history of the organization, although in later years it was the custom to purchase current publications almost exclusively. It is not likely that any of the readers regarded themselves as intellectuals, and yet their reading tastes would be highly respectable in any age. And the condition of the surviving books proves that they were really read.

Among the standard English authors represented are Shakespeare, Milton, Bacon, Pope, Addison, Boswell, Carlyle, Coleridge, Cowper, Defoe, Dickens, Gibbon, Hazlitt, Johnson, Locke, Sterne, and Smollett. At various times the library subscribed to the following periodicals: The Edinburgh Review, The Foreign Quarterly Review, Knight's Penny Magazine, The London and Westminster Review, The London Quarterly Review, The Missionary Herald, Niles' Weekly Register, and The North American Review.Novels were always popular, and the library contains sizable runs of the works of Scott, Cooper (many of them first editions), and Bulwer-Lytton, to mention only a few. Melville is represented with Typee, and nothing else. Irving, Bryant, Whittier, and Longfellow appear, but Emerson and Whitman do not. We may not be surprised by Euclid, Pope's Homer, and Cervantes, but consider Goethe, Herodotus, Seneca, and the Koran!

The fact that these people were pioneers accounts for such works as Samuel Brown's The Western Gazetteer; or, Emigrant's Directory, and William Darby's Emigrant's Guide to the Western and Southwestern States. Their mode of living would account for the many volumes dealing with various aspects of agriculture. Then there were the stereotyped series, like "Harper's Family Library," or the "Library of Entertaining Knowledge," which contained titles of interest to all members of the community, young and old alike.

Many other things could be said about The Farmers' Library, both as a collection of books and as an institution. Extended investigation of it might be profitably pursued along several different lines. What I have chiefly tried to communicate in this brief survey is the constant admiration I have felt for the intelligent and discerning members of The Farmers' Library, who had definite ideas of what they wanted to read, and who had the desire and devotion to establish and maintain an organization through which they could gratify their intellectual yearnings.


Additional Resources:

  • Voyager catalog link to a list of books in the collection