It has been a tough week here at the Library Company of Philadelphia. On Tuesday, just after beginning my work in Historical Society of PennsylvaniaI shaken out of my scholarly concentration by what I, at the time, assumed was a very loud subway train. It turns out that it was an earthquake. I only wish that I had realized what was happening at the time, instead I blithely continued working without realizing the mild danger that I was in. It wasn’t until the security guard made us evacuate the building that realization dawned. Fortunately, it only took about fifteen minutes for the staff to give the all-clear, and let us back into the library. (We were all just huddled on the sidewalk out front chomping at the bit to be allowed to do research) Researchers in Washington D.C., closer to the epicenter, were stranded outside the library of Congress and National Archives for up to seven hours while their belongings were held hostage in the coat check.
Now hurricane Irene has done her best to disrupt work over the weekend. Friday was interrupted by extensive preparations for the coming storm. Provision needed to stocked (water, flashlights, peanut butter and wine), and keys secured. All of the residents here at the Library Company prepared for a weekend without power, or the internet. We discussed early American entertainment and pioneer resourcefulness. However as it turned out, there wasn’t really much of a storm here in Philadelphia, and work continued with little actual interruption.
While nature has been doing her best to de-rail my research over the week, it has actually been a very productive week in the archives. The primary purpose of this trip was to read Mathew Carey’s correspondence at the HSP. Several very interesting letters between Carey and Patrick Byrne a Dublin bookseller could possibly shed new light on the importation of Irish books into America as well as Byrne’s later American career. Vincent Kinane quote some of these letters extensively in his work on Irish book exports, which have been recycled by other scholars. The most notorious section of which, describes the ‘vile’ books circulated in Ireland and the more refined American reading tastes. However the full letter puts these statements in more perspective.
On 22 October 1788 Carey wrote to Byrne that:
“The book business in this country is much altered of late. As the conclusion of the war, there were few books, and money in great abundance. In consequence any trash went off well. Now, the very reverse is the case. We are deluged with books from England and Ireland, and money is very scarce. Therefore even the best books sell slowly, and at low rates. ….What demand we have, is for books, which easily command cash with you. Bibles, law books, delphini classics, dictionaries, etc. etc. are called for, and purchased. Novels will by no means answer.”*
Though Carey did describe certain books in Ireland as vile, he was by no means categorizing all Irish publications. It is little tidbits like this, that make these research trips exciting, even without natural disasters.
*Mathew Carey to Patrick Byrne, 22 October 1788, Mathew Carey Letterbook, vol. 1, pp 75-76, Lea and Febiger Collection 227b, HSP.