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Hampton Gate Art Print

Hampton Gate by Alan Blaustien

Once a written language was in place, people began to save the information. In part, because recorded history started as business transactions; bills, proof of payment, inventory and the like. Later treaties, decrees, proclamations, epistles formed. Before long, mass production of text and the literacy rate improved, pontification was bound into a volume called a codex. By nature codices or books, in layman’s terms, were difficult to come by. First a scribe, then the material, the arduous work of hand writing a “clean” copy (sans mistakes and horrible ink blotches), then off to the binder! Animal skins, thread, knives, steam, gold inlay for a flourish . . . Yes, the market was scarce. As a result, the few literate persons with means purchased these expensive items, elevated literature to a status symbol. Consequently, the more books owned the richer the owner. Clearly, it was a display of wealth. Better yet, is the man who actually read the text he bought. Just because one buys a novel does not mean one reads the book, which I believe we are all guilty of at some point or another.

These collections of books were repositories of information and a “wealth” of knowledge. Libraries began as private endeavors through religious orders and rulers of kingdoms. By the time a Gentleman could afford a personal library it was the late 1600s or early 1700s. These personal libraries said much of the man in question. Not only did it convey wealth, but also his specific interests in the world by the topics collected and how much leisure time was available to him. He may have lent a close comrade a volume or two and would have allowed his older children to peruse the stacks, but to give a book from his personal library to any ol’ stranger was absurd.

Paying establishments came later. People could purchase membership for access of the works. For the first hundred years or so, they were not allowed to leave with the volume in hand. The book had to be read “in house,” some went so far as to chain books to the table with heavy metal chains to prevent theft. Some paying libraries were set up so the books were not available to members by sight. They had to walk up to a counter where the keeper of the books was situated and request books on a certain topic. The Keeper would disappear into a locked room and retrieve some books of the desired topic or author. This is still often the case in special university collections. Outside lending of materials to paid members was a bit more acceptable once the price of books dropped.

Then in 1853, Boston is credited with establishing the first FREE public library in America and revolutionized the library system! Some people were appalled! They felt riffraff should not be allowed in a building lined with expensive treasures. They would surely get sullied. As far as they were concerned it was similar to letting a bull loose in a china shop. Such residents could not see long term what it would mean for the country. change happens. As such, the paradigm shifted yet again in Modern times, when the masses gained free access to the internet. . . which is another debate entirely.