The Literary Societies and Their Libraries

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Introduction to the Visualization

Like the College Library, the Athenian and Alexandrian Societies were established during the founding year of the College, in 1821, and one year later, in 1822, the societies established a library collection, initially shared between the two groups (1). Eventually, the societies split the original library into two separate collections, and by the mid-1830s, both societies had amassed collections of over 2,000 volumes each!

Two bookplates, athenian and alexandrian societies, with manuscript inscriptions
Bookplates from both libraries provide some compelling donor information.

The Athenian and Alexandrian Societies had enormous influence during the early decades of the College. In fact, in his text on the history of the college, Professor William Seymour Tyler writes that “The two literary societies…exerted an influence on the taste and style of writing and speaking of their members scarcely second to that of the professors…” (2). Virtually all students were members of one or the other, and each held weekly meetings in which members had discussions, gave orations, and held debates.

Below, explore a few of the wide-ranging questions members debated at society meetings (the resulting verdict follows in parentheses) (3):

“Is there anything in the constitution of the United States which conflicts with divine law?” (Negative)

“Has British influence in India promoted the happiness of the latter country?” (Negative)

“Do our college faculty possess too despotic power?” (Negative)

Is the present mode of celebrating the Forth of July beneficial to our country?” (Affirmative)

“Is celibacy productive of more happiness than a state of marriage?”

(Affirmative)

Are different grades in society conducive to its prosperity?” (Negative)

It’s clear that these societies had serious intellectual ambition, but how did their book collections compare to the College Library?

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(1) Cutting, George Rugg. Student Life at Amherst College. Its Organizations, Their Membership and History. Amherst: Hatch & Williams, 1871. 15. https://archive.org/details/studentlifeatamh00cuttrich

(2) Tyler, William Seymour. A History of Amherst College During the Administration of its First Five Presidents, from 1821-1891. New York: F.H. Hitchcock, 1895. 261. https://archive.org/details/historyofamherst00tylerich

(3) Minutes of the Alexandrian Society in the Clubs and Societies Collection [Box 7, Folder 6]. Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library.