Prison Libraries Developed Rapidly Relative to Public Libraries

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In nineteenth-century U.S., prison libraries developed rapidly relative to public libraries. The Walnut Street prison in Philadelphia had a prison library not later than 1809.^ The New York State Prison had a prison library that circulated books to convicts before 1819.^ In 1846, when told that prisoners in the state prison at Alton, Illinois, did not have a library, prisoners in the state prison at Charlestown, Massachusetts, spontaneously donated 400 bound volumes, plus tracts and pamphlets, to the Alton chaplain, .^ In the fall of 1848, the Chaplain of the Sing Sing prison in New York reported:

The library of the male prison consists of 825 volumes, and of the female prison of about 500 volumes, besides a Bible and a hymn book in each cell, and a large number of arithmetic and spelling books. All these are in a sound condition, fit to be distributed and read.^

A leading authority on prisons reported:

In 1847, we find libraries existing in most of the state prisons of the country, one of which – that of Ohio – is reported as containing 3,000 volumes.^ ^

States with relatively large populations of prisoners – New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois – established prison libraries prior to 1850. A majority of prisoners in U.S. state prisons probably had access to library services by 1850. Specific information indicates that state prison libraries existed prior to 1860 in 19 out of 33 states that then formed the United States. In 1875, the Eastern State Penitentiary library contained 8,737 volumes. It was then the largest prison library in the U.S. A mid-sized public library in 1875 had 1,050 volumes.^ A mid-sized state prison library in 1875 had 1,938 volumes. The typical state prison library was thus about twice as large as the typical public library. In 1875, state prison libraries held 3.0 books per prisoner. Public libraries, in contrast, held 0.5 books per person outside prisons. Nineteenth-century U.S. prison libraries were well-developed relative to public libraries.

Prisoner-Owned Books in 19th-Century Prisons

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In addition to reading books borrowed from prison libraries, prisoners in nineteenth-century U.S. prisons acquired many of their own books. In the fall of 1848, the chaplain of Sing Sing State Prison in New York reported:

many of the convicts have private libraries furnished by themselves and their friends. But no book is allowed, that has not been approved by the chaplain. 172 convicts {out of 610} in the male prison have private libraries, greater or less, from 55 volumes to a single one, each; the whole comprising 1200 volumes.^

The prison library at that time held 825 books.^ Thus about a quarter of the convicts had private libraries, with a total number of books about 50% greater than the total number of books in the prison library. The chaplain of the Auburn State Prison noted that the convicts possessed “bad books.” He described his professional challenge in attempting to eliminate bad books:

“bad books,” in the form of “popular novels,” “histories of robbers, pirates,” &c.; books concerning which Lord Brougham said, that he “sometimes doubted whether that education which gave the ability to read them, did not do more hurt than good.” … These works, it is but justice to myself and the officers of the prison to say, were found in the hands of the convicts when we entered upon our duties. The law now makes it my duty to take these “bad books” from the convicts, and to deposit them with the agent. For this purpose, the cells have been frequently visited, though to little effect, as the prisoners generally conceal them about their persons or in their shops. Hence it is quite difficult for the chaplain to obtain possession of them, without being more of a police officer than seems desirable for one in his position. A considerable number, however, have been obtained. Many others have been burned or otherwise disposed of by the convicts, rather than that they should fall into the hands of the chaplain or agent.^

The chaplain reported that, out of 452 prisoners, 163 “read novels before they came here”, while 110 “read novels since they came here.”^ Reading novels was considered to be morally dangerous. A year later the chaplain lamented:

a considerable number of the prisoners who in their choice of books, almost uniformly reject those that are best calculated to improve their minds and elevate their morals, and either select from the library those works that are least instructive and useful, or devote leisure hours to the perusal of such novels, romances, &c. as they can clandestinely obtain from each other, and from those who have access to the interior of the prison. While the facilities for procuring these works have been considerably diminished during the last two years, it is well known to those who are conversant with the facts in the case, that the convicts still find means to secure a tolerable supply of the later issues of this kind of reading.^

Being in prison limits opportunities for earning money and for searching retail outlets in order to acquire books. Yet as early as 1848, prisoners succeeded in acquiring a considerable number of books from sources other than a prison library. In 1864, the Prison Association of New York noted of prisoners held in Sing Sing prison:

It is an interesting fact that during the year no less than thirty convicts have expended of their own money sums varying from one to eighteen dollars in the purchase of books.^

The number of prisoners who could afford such expenditure was probably a small share of the total number of prisoners. Prison libraries created equal opportunities for prisoners to read books. Despite their extensive development, prison libraries in the nineteenth century weren’t sufficient to satisfy all prisoners demands for books. Prisoners privately acquired a large number of their own books.

19th-Century Prison Libraries Had Diverse Holdings

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Nineteenth-century prison libraries had diverse book holdings. The imaginative literature or novels that appeared most frequently in mid-nineteenth-century British prison library catalogs were, in descending order of frequency, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Johnson’s Rasselas. Pilgrim’s Progress was “the runaway winner in all categories {of prison library books}.”^ Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe, and Rasselas were in New York state prison libraries about 1850. The 1848 Sing Sing Prison library catalog included five copies of Pilgrim’s Progress. Nineteenth-century prison libraries did not contain merely stern theological books.

Consider, for example, the holdings of the Philadelphia County Prison library in 1854. That prison library was founded in 1844. A catalog of its holdings was printed in 1854. The Philadelphia County Prison library in 1854 held Pilgrim’s Progress and Robinson Crusoe. It also held three of Chambers’ collections: Miscellany of instructive & entertaining tracts (10 volumes), Papers for the People (12 volumes), and Papers for the Poor (6 volumes). The chaplain at the Pentonville penitentiary in England was asked to remove from the Pentonville prison library volumes 4 and 6 of Chambers’ Miscellany “because they contained accounts of the escapes of Trench and La Jude.”^ Both of these volumes were in the Philadelphia County Prison library in 1854.

The Philadelphia prison library held many other books of diverse types. The Philadelphia Prison library held Knight’s Half-hours with the best authors (4 volumes) and Goodrich’s Boys’ and Girls’ Library (16 volumes). For prisoners with greater reading ambitions, the prison library offered collected works of Shakespeare (5 volumes), collected work of Byron (8 volumes), Cervantes’ Don Quixote, collections of Alexander Pope’s and William Wordsworth’s poetry, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities, and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (6 volumes). Early nineteenth-century authors with many popular works were also represented: Walter Scott (2 titles in 5 volumes), Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna (12 titles in 12 volumes), and Washington Irving (13 titles in 16 volumes).

Traditional religious works did not dominate the Philadelphia prison library’s collection. Religious works of various sorts comprised 16% of the volumes in the library. The English Puritan leader Richard Baxter’s long-famous work, Saints’ everlasting rest: or, A treatise of the blessed state of the saints, in their enjoyment of God in glory (1650) was in the library in five copies. The eighteenth-century American spiritual revivalist Jonathon Edwards was represented with his book, Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. The late eighteenth-century British politician, philanthropist, and influential abolitionist William Wilberforce was represented with his book A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of This Country Contrasted With Real Christianity. The library also included two copies of Sales’s translation of the Qur’an, a biblical dictionary, collections of sermons, and books such as Lamp and the lantern: or The Bible, Light for the tent and the traveler.

The most common theme among the religious books seems to have been natural theology. William Paley, Thomas Chalmers, and Thomas Dick, leading exponents of natural theology, were authors of at least twelve of the religious volumes in the Philadelphia County Prison library in 1854. Other volumes that considered religion from secular standards of reason included Hall’s Christian Philosophy, Knox’s Christian Philosophy, Alexander’s Evidences of the Christian Religion, McIlvaine’s Evidences of Christianity, Brewster’s Letters on Natural Magic, Butler’s Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed to the Constitution and Course of Nature, Smith’s Scripture and Geology, and Bell’s The Hand; Its mechanism and vital endowments as evincing design. Bell’s book on the hand was part of a series, known as the Bridgewater Treatises, which also included Prout’s Chemistry, Meteorology, and the Function of Digestion, considered with reference to Natural Theology. Prout’s book fits well within the current style of titles for U.S. law review articles. Bell’s work probably meets the intellectual standard of much modern work on intelligent design. Narrow-minded piety no better characterizes religious books available to prisoners from the Philadelphia County Prison library in 1854 than it characterizes intellectual life today.

State prison libraries in New York about 1850 held a larger share of religious books and a smaller share of fiction than did the Philadelphia County Prison library. The prison library at Auburn state prison of New York began in 1840 with a donation of fifty copies of Lindley Murray’s Power of religion on the mind, in retirement, affliction, and at the approach of death; exemplified in the testimonies and experiences of persons distinguished by their greatness, learning, or virtue, along with twelve copies of Abigail Mott’s Biographical Sketches and Interesting Anecdotes of Persons of Colour; To Which is Added, a Selection of Pieces in Poetry.^ The prison library in New York’s Sing Sing prison began in 1842 when the governor of New York personally funded the purchase of schoolbooks and seventy-five copies of Richard Baxter’s A call to the unconverted to turn and live, a Puritan classic.^ ^

Nineteenth-century New York state prison libraries rapidly acquired a wide array of books. In 1848, the Sing Sing prison library included Charles Dickens’ novels Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist, other novels and travel tales, George Combe’s Constitution of Man, and, reportedly, Orson Fowler’s Amativeness; or Evils and Remedies of Excessive and Perverted Sexuality. Such book holdings led to a press scandal, an official investigation, and a purging of prison staff and books. This scandal may have motivated newly appointed prison inspectors to include the catalog of the Sing Sing prison library in their first annual report. The inspectors also reported books purchased for the Auburn, Sing Sing, and Clinton state prison libraries from 1848 to 1853. The Sing Sing catalog for 1848 and these lists include 14% fiction and 32% religious works, compared to 23% fiction and 16% religious works in the Philadelphia County Prison in 1854. Even in the high-profile circumstances of New York state prison libraries about 1850, religious books accounted for only about a third of the volumes. The Sing Sing prison library catalog in 1848 even included Wilhelm Meinhold’s tale, Mary Schweidler, the amber witch: the most interesting trial for witchcraft ever known. In 1864, the New York Prison Association reported with respect to the Sing Sing prison library:

The books most desired by the convicts are tales and magazines, and the latter more on account of the stories they contain than of their discussions of the great questions. … the chaplain excludes novels, as far as possible, from the shelves of the library, admitting (of this category) only the works of standard authors, such as Scott, Cooper, Edgworth, Sherwood, James, Arthur, and a few others. Biography, travels and history afford the best reading for convicts, and these, next to fiction, are most relished by them.^

A wide range of non-religious books were available in mid-nineteenth-century prison libraries. Nineteenth-century New York state prison libraries held biographies, travel books, history books, and novels. They even included recent best-selling novels and books that some public libraries refused to hold.