Opening the Redwood Annals to the earliest days of the Library always encourages me to make connections between now and then. As we pass through the first week of November, adding books to our collection and starting new projects, our forebears at the Redwood Library were doing the same. At a meeting held on November 4, 1747, 270 years ago as of this weekend, “The Company met in the Council Chamber” and made decisions that continue to be relevant to our work today.
In this meeting, it was “agreed that the directors shall draw up a catalogue of books such as they shall think will best answer the ends of the foundation and present the same to the Company at their next meeting.” The list of books that the members wished to purchase with the 500 pounds sterling donated by Abraham Redwood (1709-1788) was given to John Tomlinson, their agent, to purchase in London. Upon his return, the books he purchased there and the books added by members of the company, were officially recorded in: A Catalogue of the Books belonging to the Company of the Redwood Library in Newport on Rhode Island A.D. 1750.
The 1750 Catalogue is organized into two sections; first are the books brought back from London by Tomlinson, ordered by size, and second are “Books given by several Gentlemen.” These additional books were not donations, as the cost of each book is noted beside the title. Instead, they were purchased with the money from Abraham Redwood’s donation through the effort of the men whose names are attached to them. Two of the men who gave books to the Original Collection were admitted as members to the Redwood Library at the meeting on November 4, namely Captain William Dunbar (fl. 1746) and Abraham Hart.
Captain Dunbar’s contribution is listed in the Catalogue as Chambers’ Dictionary. It is a two-volume set by Ephraim Chambers (ca. 1680-1740) with a longer title that begins, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences: Containing an Explication of the Terms and an Account of the Things Signified Thereby, in the Several Arts, both Liberal and Mechanical; and the Several Sciences, Human and Divine (1741-1743). An interest in the divine, in many forms, is present throughout the original collection and certainly in the work submitted by Abraham Hart, a Biblia Hebraica (1705). This Bible is in Hebrew, which former Redwood Librarian Ezra Stiles (1727-1795) learned from Isaac Touro (1738-1783), the leader of the Touro Synagogue and adds to the multiplicity of languages and religions of interest to the founding members of the Library.
Other members added to the Company of the Redwood Library at the meeting on November 4 included Gideon & Joseph Wanton, William Ellery, Godfrey Malbone Jr., Gideon Cornell, John Collins, John Dennis, and a handful of others whose names are all a part of Newport’s history. They were admitted unanimously and welcomed into discussion of the most pressing matter of the time: gathering materials and funds for the construction of a Library building to house the proposed collection of books. Five thousand pounds have been subscribed and it was time to collect and begin.
At the Redwood Library today, we still have the Library building, which has stood the test of time through the benefit of regular additions, and we are continuing to eagerly add to our collection. Two of our most recent acquisitions, which Patrick Crowley, our Ezra Stiles Special Collections Librarian, is eager to share soon, are from the Original Collection itself. It has been a while since we have recovered any of the volumes lost from our collection during the American Revolution so it is fitting that, on the 270th anniversary of the decision to write a list of books to collect, we are able to return two of them to their rightful homes on our shelves in the Harrison Room. Their meeting so many years ago is still a driving force behind the work we do today at the Redwood Library and our collection is better for it.