Redwood History: Strangers at the Library

Fri, 09/22/2017 - 12:40pm -- mfarias

Today’s Redwood Library is open daily to both members and visitors, with different policies and privileges for both, but this has not always been the case. A look through the annals has revealed an evolving visitor services policy first recorded in the early 1800s that identified anyone not previously known to the library as a “stranger.”

 

Two women sitting on the steps of Elmhyrst, ca. 1899-1909
Newport Collection of Photographs, General Newport Photographs
From the Collection of the Redwood Library

 

At the end of December of 1825 it was resolved that the Directors of the Library may “be empowered to grant the privileges of the Company, so far as relates to the use of the books to such distinguished strangers or liberal benefactors to the Library, as may be temporarily residing in the town of Newport.” A lot of the early power and discretion regarding these “strangers” fell to the Directors. Similarly, in 1833, it was resolved that the Directors may “be authorized to cause the Library to be opened every day in the week except Sundays, for such time as they may think proper, and to admit strangers to use the books in the Library during the hours in which it shall be kept open” as long as it did not cost the Company any money and the Directors made sure the books were kept safe.

 

A view of Fort Louis/Fort Dumplings, men with lobster pots in foreground, n.d. 
Newport Collection of Photographs, General Newport Photographs
From the Collection of the Redwood Library


In July of 1834, a formal committee presented their report to the Library regarding the admission of non-members: “That they consider the benefit arising from a Literary Institution ought to be diffused as evenly as possible, provided that they do not interfere with the interests of the original proprietors; the committee therefore recommend that by extending the advantages of the Library, by opening the doors to strangers and visitors of Newport, as well as to those who are not actually members, the Institution, from the number of persons who will by this means be interested in its welfare, instead of being depreciated, will be much increased in value.” Their belief that the useful advantages of a library should be made available to as many as possible was much in spirit with the earliest ideals of the library. In this same report, it was proposed, “That strangers (visiting Newport) be admitted for the summer season by paying $2.00 each.” Summer memberships became regular assets to the library, informing statistics on readership and bringing in additional revenue.

 

View of Easton's Beach with horses & carriages, ca. 1900
Newport Collection of Photographs, General Newport Photographs
From the Collection of the Redwood Library


The Library began keeping a Hotel Register of the arrivals at the hotels in Newport in June of 1859. The register was to be updated every morning and it became a source of some complaint for the Librarian at the time Benjamin H. Rhoades. In his report at the annual meeting, he wrote: “The Hotel Register, as an appendage to the reading-room, has afforded important information in several cases, and has drawn throngs of strangers to the rooms. Many have made use of it probably, who were not introduced by the stockholders of season subscribers, and yet have no so much as left their thanks to for the privilege. Many, he thinks, have gone still further, using the papers and periodicals without making any compensation. Should this be viewed as an impropriety, the Librarian would ask to be instructed as to what remedy he shall apply.” The “strangers” who came in to view the Hotel Register took other liberties with the library without any payment and it was beginning to become an issue. Rhoades felt that these services were valuable and ought to be “liberally supported, both by our own citizens and by visitors from abroad.” By 1864, the board voted to discontinue the Hotel Register and noted that as a result of “remarks having been made by several members of the Board, on the great influx of strangers and others, visiting the Library” it was voted that the Book Committee would study the subject of limiting such visitors. After meeting, “The report on the admission of strangers, after amendment, was adopted as follows: “Strangers admitted on application to the Librarian, and registering their names in a book, or by a letter from a proprietor.” With this policy, the Directors attempted to return the greater control they had over library visitors several decades before.

 

A woman on a horse in front of Elmhyrst, ca. 1900-1910
Newport Collection of Photographs, General Newport Photographs
From the Collection of the Redwood Library


There isn’t much mention of strangers or visitors to the library in the next several decades of the annals. Robert H. Ives wrote to the President and the Directors about his pleasure that so many visitors to Newport find interest in the library and give such an old institution life, but this is just an observation. It is not until 1887 that the topic is brought back into discussion at the annual meeting in August. The report notes: “So great has been the inconvenience occasioned by the yearly increasing number of sight-seers and excursionists who crowd the library, especially in the summer months, to the interruption of the work of the Librarian and his assistant, and to the annoyance of the readers and students in the Library, that it was found necessary to limit the time during which visitors, unless accompanied by or bearing a note of introduction from a proprietor, could be admitted. Accordingly, by a vote of the Directors at their monthly meeting in July, the hours for visitors were put at from 12 o’clock pm to 2 o’clock pm. The beneficial effect of this restriction is already shown in the increased quality of the Library and reading-room and in the presence of a larger number of readers.” The policy of granting greater privilege to those bearing a note of welcome continued, but hours for any other potential visitors, who are at least no longer referred to as strangers, were limited as much possible and the board was apparently pleased with the success.

 

View of Easton's Beach bathhouses, ca. 1875
Newport Collection of Photographs, General Newport Photographs
From the Collection of the Redwood Library


Although this was the last mention of visitors in the annals, clearly our visitor service policies have changed a lot since then. Today, we open our library to visitors during our operating hours for a visiting fee and allow them to spend as much time as they like taking in our public spaces. Our reference services are also available to any visitors who are interested in doing research in our archives and special collections, for a reference fee. While there are small fees for visitors, there is much greater access and opportunity for them than in the 1800s, and we certainly no longer consider them strangers. Visitors are always welcome!

The photos of Newport from the late 1800s and early 1900s used in this blog post to show some scenes of summer life in Newport are taken from our Newport Collection of Photographs, part of our ongoing project to scan and catalog our photos.