Elizabeth D. Samet teaches English at West Point. In her recent book, Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, she studied library borrowing records from some prominent 19th century students at the military academy.
Here is a taste of Samet’s recent article in The New Republic:
Throughout much of the nineteenth century, West Point cadets were permitted to check books out of the library only once a week: “On Saturday afternoon,” the 1857 regulations state, “any book that a Cadet may have been reading during the week, may be taken to his quarters, on the approval of the Librarian, and shall be returned on the succeeding Monday. If not then returned, he shall be reported by the Librarian.”
Decades of Saturday borrowing activity are recorded in handwritten ledgers now preserved in the archives. I’ve spent a fair bit of time looking through them, following the activity of a given title or tracking the reading habits of an individual cadet. There are storied names in the books: Lee, Sherman, and Grant, who refers in his memoirs to the “fine library connected with the Academy from which cadets can get books to read in their quarters. I devoted more time to these, than to books relating to the course of studies. Much of the time, I am sorry to say, was devoted to novels, but not those of a trashy sort. I read all of Bulwer’s then published, Cooper’s, Marryat’s, Scott’s, Washington Irving’s works, Lever’s, and many others that I do not now remember.”
I was recently talking with a student about library borrowing records. Very few records of this type exist for the eighteenth-century century, but those that they do offer a wonderful glimpse into the intellectual life of ordinary people. I am no expert, but I imagine that the deeper one gets into the nineteenth century, the more accessible these sources become.
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.