The history of the Redwood Library through the nineteenth century was captured for us in the Annals of the Redwood Library & Athenaeum, published by George Champlin Mason (1820-1894) in 1891. To provide the history of the Library, he moved chronologically through historical records, from the Philosophical Society that preceded the Library to his present at the end of the 1800s. Mason’s primary sources were the minutes of the annual meetings of the Redwood Library, during which the gathered members assessed the year, elected new officers, and discussed relevant business. The minutiae of these routine meetings have provided us with detailed insight into the workings of the Library and useful information about its most important members.
Mason began the Annals with a begrudging concession that the Redwood had likely been an outgrowth of the Philosophical Society established in Newport in 1730. It is not known how the two may have merged, but Mason credits the generosity of Abraham Redwood in providing for the society and the city of Newport in general with the funds and name for a new establishment. In making space in his history for the Philosophical Society, Mason listed the signers of its Constitution and attempted to include a biography of each man. For some of the members, he knew where they had lived and died, what contributions they had made to the Society and to the Library, and who their family was. For others, there is nothing more than a signature. This early historical work done by Mason gets us a little closer to knowing the men who may have been responsible for the start of the Redwood Library, outside of Abraham Redwood.
For instance, Dr. John Brett signature appears on the Constitution even though the date when he came to America is debated. While Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse gave the date as 1749, Mason notes that he did not realize that Dr. Brett was a charter member of the Redwood Library of 1747 and his signature appears on this 1735 document, proving he was here much earlier. Brett gave many books to the library, all in Latin and none of a later date than 1662. From him we received a quarto of the Biblia Latina dated from 1487.
Another of the signers was Henry Collins (1699-1770) was born in Newport in 1699. Collins was connected to the Ward family through his mother’s first marriage and thus grew up in a stimulating environment. His mother’s son from her first marriage served as Governor of Rhode Island, as did his son, and Collins spent much time with this family and at his studies. He was known for his love of literature and the arts and he was a perfect fit for both the Philosophical Society and the Redwood Library. When Abraham Redwood supplied the money for the establishment of a public library in Newport, it was Henry Collins who offered and gave the lot of land on which the library now stands.
Abraham Redwood (left) and Henry Collins (right)
Many of the men on the list were involved with the beginnings of the Redwood Library, though Abraham Redwood was not among them. Perhaps the Library was an idea of his own, but it is clear that these men dominated the intellectual scene in Newport at the time and the Redwood became the perfect place to turn their attentions. The Annals reveal much more than just the origins of the Library, as the detailed minutes reveal exactly who held positions at the Library through the years. In a later entry, we can see the selection of Mr. Richard Bliss for Librarian in 1884, whose wife was personally responsible for handwriting thousands of catalog cards, which we still have access to today. He was given twelve hundred dollars a year and leave to employ his own assistant. In a note about his reelection in 1890, his salary had not changed, though his wife had managed to catalog even more books by the end of her time with the Library.
The Annals are densely packed with details that may seem difficult to parse through, but they contain so much information about the history of the Library and life in Newport that are invaluable resources for anyone seeking to know more. A lot of information can be gleaned from something that may seem dry and the Annals have much to share.