Up until very recently, the ability to access information has been very intimately attached to the concept of ownership. Various technological and sociological attention has been given to this phenomena. The Technium notes in January of 2009 that "the trend is clear: access trumps possession. Access is better than ownership," (Read more) and a recent TED talk given by Rachel Botsman presents a "Case for Collaborative Consumption" ("Better than Owning" - "The Case of Collaborative Consumption).
Before this socio-technological shift, however, we are able to more directly study the body of information specific persons had access to through analyzing their ownership of particular sources of knowledge. Using this method, individuals may validate and extend research focused around comparative analysis and tracing authorial influence.
By comparing Emerson's list of owned books (his personal library) against other Early American thinkers may lead to realms of study otherwise undiscovered. Of course, such a comparative analysis of libraries requires complete access to the books in multiple libraries, this branch of study is limited by the availability of this metadata. Fortunately, as the Internet encourages a more collaborative society, these resources become increasely more available.
Below is a comparative glance at the libraries of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Jefferson.
LibraryThing's database allows one's cataloged library to be compared against another's. Since both of the databases are near comprehensive catalogs of their physical counterpart, we can see with a small margin of error that Emerson and Jefferson owned approximently hundred of the same titles.
Some of the titles listed on the comparison suggest cultural or period trends, such as the continuing desire to become familiar with classical literature. Both Emerson and Jefferson owned several titles by: Aeschylus, Homer, Thucydides, and Xenophon as well as more modern classics such as Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare.
Other titles hint at particular contemporary social and economic theories they have acquired throughout their lives, ranging from British thinkers such as Bolingbroke and Locke to American thinkers such as Alexander Hamilton.
By measuring the proportions by which Emerson's and Jefferson's libraries shared classic texts and studies of those classical texts verses more contemporary texts and studies, we find that by a significant majority the texts shared are comprised of the classical canon. Such an observation can introduce a variety of ideas used to explore and contextualize Early American culture, including but not limited to:
- The development of public libraries in Early America and their affect on private ownership.
- The existence of an accepted classical canon and preferred translations and studies of these works.
- An analysis of what theoretical ideas may have been shared between Emerson and Jefferson.
- Tracing the sources of concepts and ideas through shared resources.
- Return to the complete libraries of Emerson and Jefferson to see what resources they didn't have in common.
To run your own comparative study of Emerson's Library, visit the database at LibraryThing available through the Comprehensive Library tab at the top of the page.