The Staying Power of Books

This past holiday weekend, we stopped for a night in very-historic Burlington, New Jersey. The list of notables who have darkened various doors in Burlington include Ulysses S. Grant, whose family spent the war in Burlington; Benjamin Franklin, whose son was the last NJ royal governor; and James Fenimore Cooper, who was born there.

While we were in town, we visited the library, the seventh oldest in the country. The building that houses The Library Company of Burlington is a mere 147 years old but the library itself was chartered by King George II in 1758. For thirty years after its chartering, the library had no building. The books were kept in private houses and more than 70 people pledged 10 shillings a year to maintain and increase the collection.

In the traditional sense, a library is a collection of books, not a building. Today, we think of libraries as structures and marvel at the notion that we can now check out e books and search reference files without physically going anywhere.

The Burlington Library Company has an extensive rare book collection, some 250 books were printed before 1758. The library’s oldest book – THE BLOOD OF CHRIST – was printed in Latin in 1551 just over 100 years after the invention of the printing press. Printing had spread like wild-fire. By 1500, printing presses operated throughout Western Europe and had produced more than twenty million volumes so TBoC had company.

When the book arrived on the banks of the Delaware River it had to have been almost 100 years old at the very least. (The first recorded settlement in Burlington was 1624.) By the time TBoC made it into the Burlington Library in 1758, it was 200 years old and presumably still read. Obviously, back in the day, books had more than the three-month shelf life publishers give them today. They also had tremendous impact, bringing knowledge and enlightenment with them throughout Europe and to the colonies. Books brought the world out of the dark ages.

It makes one wonder where e books are going and what influence they will have.