More than a Library: The David Library of the American Revolution

Courtesy of author.

I have driven up and down Taylorsville Road my entire life and would frequently pass a building on that road which I knew very little about.  I later found out it is the David Library of the American Revolution and this summer I had the privilege of doing an internship there.  Before my internship, I had never stepped into the library, nor did I know what it had to offer; once I finished my first day and had but a glimpse of what the library was all about, I knew that more people should know about it and could benefit from their resources.  The David Library is a place where everyone is welcome, and provides programs and collections unlike any other to encourage learning about the colonial and Revolutionary time periods.

The David Library of the American Revolution, founded by Sol Feinstone in 1959 in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania, collects material that covers the time period 1750 to 1800.  The David Library is a non-profit organization that provides exceptional services to the public.  It is open to everyone, including every age and experience level, regardless of whether or not they know about the time period or where to start their research.  From students of all levels of education, to authors and members of the general public, the library can help them find both primary and secondary resources needed to strengthen their arguments or to simply satisfy their curiosity of the Revolutionary time period.  

A significant number of visitors to the library are interested in family history.  The library has primary resources on microfilm and in books to help people find original documents about their ancestors.  Others visit the library to explore a topic that they will later develop into an article or book. Visitors are free to explore the library’s multiple resources on their own or with guidance from the staff.  Besides a full-time librarian, the library relies on volunteers and interns who are welcoming and willing to help everyone.  They have dedicated their time to supporting the library and will do their best to get people the sources they need, from help finding a book to obtaining a clear copy of a document.  If a researcher is unfamiliar with using microfilm, the staff will help from start to finish; however, visitors are free to work with the microfilm on their own if they know how. Not everyone helped by the staff walks through the door; the library also receives many phone calls and emails from all over the country, from Maine to California, with research questions that the staff will assist with answering.

Library Picture2Some revisit the library after they finish their research to speak about their findings. Besides being open to the public, the David Library hosts scholarly lectures throughout the year, divided into two series consisting of four to five lectures each.  The speakers come to discuss their research about a particular event or study within the time period 1750 and 1800.  Each lecture is about forty-five minutes to an hour followed by questions from the audience, after which the library hosts a reception which frequently includes the author’s book sale and signing.  Several of the lectures are recorded and are in the process of being uploaded onto the David Library website, which will be advantageous for those who are unable to attend.  There are no lectures during the summer, but instead the library shows movies about the time period.  Admission for both the lectures and movies are free and everyone in the public is welcome to these events.

The David Library offers a fellowship program that is open to both Ph.D. candidates and postdoctoral candidates who are either working on their dissertation or fine-tuning previous work into a book.  The library has hosted fellowship recipients from all over the world including Canada, China and Germany, as well as all over the United States.  The most noteworthy aspect of the fellowship is that the fellow is offered onsite residency and given a key to the library, which allows them access at any time of day or night.  More information about the process and the program itself can be found on the David Library website.

Collections are, of course, the centerpiece of the David Library.  There are a number of different kinds of primary and secondary resources all under the same roof, which makes it a “one-stop shopping” experience.  Because the library limits its scope to the short time span of 1750 to 1800, it enables the library to carry a great deal of depth within those fifty years.  This time period includes two major military conflicts, the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, as well as the establishment of our first National government, and the library’s resources are focused on those areas.  In addition to the military events, there were also a lot of social, political and economic changes that America faced within this time frame, and the library’s primary and secondary sources cover these topics as well.

Although there are many secondary source books that can aid someone with his or her research, the strength of the David Library’s collections is its primary resources.  There library has acquired hundreds of microfilm collections of manuscript documents from repositories all over Europe and North America, putting them in a single location for the public to browse.

For genealogical and military research, two of the most popular collections used are the American military service cards[1] and pension papers,[2] both of which are held by the U. S. National Archives and Records Administration. The library has this material on microfilm, including guides and indexes, allowing family members to find, and scan or print, documents about their ancestor’s Revolutionary War military service.

Library Picture3The military and governmental records held by the library are not just American. British records from a variety of governmental sources such as the British Admiralty, Colonial, Foreign, War and Home Offices are available on microfilm.  These include subcategories of the original collections held by the British National Archives, and include only those volumes relevant to the years and of the library’s focus.  The Admiralty records, for example, include numerous categories such as the Accountant-General’s Department, the Board of Admiralty In-letters, the Marine Pay Office Records and the Navy Board In-Letters and Minutes.  Each of these microfilm collections have multiple reels, which add up to a significant series.  The David Library is one of the few places in the world to hold such records, making these resources available to researchers outside of Great Britain.

Within the British records, one particularly interesting collection is the Loyalist Papers from the Audit Office.  This collection contains information about how the American loyalists applied for compensation for what they lost during the American Revolution.  It consists of two series, Audit Office 12[3] and Audit Office 13,[4]  holding the memorials, or petitions, submitted by the Loyalists.  AO 12 contains lists and tables of what that person was applying for, while AO 13 has the majority of the evidence, such as property deeds, wills and witness depositions that the person included to make their petition more credible.  These petitions were sent to the British government, which determined whether or not the petition was valid and if the applicant should be compensated.[5]  The Loyalist Papers are useful for those interested in genealogical study if their ancestor was a loyalist in addition to researchers who want to know more about loyalists in general, what they owned, and how the war affected them.

Another interesting collection is the Judge Advocate General’s Office Court Martial Proceedings (WO 71/53-62, 80-97),[6] which are in a digital format in addition to being on microfilm.  These are transcripts of British court cases involving soldiers and civilians on trial for a crimes committed while under military government.  Most of the soldiers were accused of desertion, but there were other crimes including robbery and murder, committed by British and Loyalist soldiers as well as civilians in military garrisons.  The transcripts include a list of the members of the Court itself, the testimony of the witnesses and defendant, and the court’s decision.  The amount of information in this collection is remarkable. Volunteers and interns are currently in the process of organizing an index to the court martial records, and entering the data into an Excel spreadsheet so that they are more easily searchable and accessible.

Additional holdings at the David Library include compilations of rare German records.  Included are copies of Hessian documents such as the Bancroft Hessian Manuscript Collection[7] held at the New York Public Library, and an assortment of material like Hessian diaries, letter collections and orderly books.  Morristown National Historical Park’s Hessian Documents of the American Revolution from the Lidgerwood Collection[8] is one of the larger Hessian holdings in the David Library, a collection of “approximately 21,000 pages of German script and almost 10,000 typescript pages of English translation.”[9]  Having both the original German text and an English translation is particularly valuable for meticulous researchers. Among the letters is a report on the Battle of Trenton from the German point of view by Cornet Levin Carl von Heister, aide de camp to Gen. Leopold Philip de Heister, explaining the events that took place at the Battle of Trenton; it is followed by letters from other officers including Lt. Col. Alexander Leslie and Col. Carl von Donop, describing the battle and what their next course of action would be.

Even though the library is most known for its large collections, they do have smaller collections consisting of books in the vault, pamphlets and vertical files.  The vault contains a collection of original books and documents from the eighteenth century.  Although it is beneficial to have the original books written by well-known Revolutionary characters like John Adams and Thomas Paine, the library does carry more recent copies of these same books so that the originals in the vault remain safe and in good condition.  The pamphlets, being thin and fragile, are stored in manila folders in filing cabinets.  Although the pamphlets are listed in the online catalogue, the vertical files are not.  Vertical files are resources such as newspaper clippings, articles or photographs about a particular topic relevant to the Revolutionary time period.  They have been collected together and are organized into different subject categories.

From the services the library provides, to the programs and collections that they have, the David Library is a place that everyone interested in history can benefit from.  It is a welcoming place where everyone should feel like they can go to find out more about the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, their family history during this time period or just to see the unique collection the library has to offer.  I have learned so much during my internship there and I strongly encourage everyone to visit there; you’re bound to learn something new.

For more information about the David Library of the American Revolution, visit their website, www.dlar.org.  You can also find them on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, where you can follow them and receive updates about the library as well as stay updated about the world of the American Revolution.

 

[1] Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, National Archives Trust Fund Board: Washington, 1976; DLAR Film 16.

[2] Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land-Warrant Application Files, National Archives and Records Service General Services Administration, Washington, DC, 1974; DLAR Film 27.

[4] Great Britain, Audit Office, Records of the American Loyalist Claims Commission, 1776-1831 (AO 12), British National Archives; DLAR Film 263.

[5] Great Britain, Audit Office, Papers of the American Loyalist Claims Commission, 1780-1835 (AO13), British National Archives; DLAR Film 264.

[6] Peter Wilson Coldham, American Migrations 1765-1799 (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc, 2000).

[3] Great Britain, War Office, Judge Advocate General’s Office, Court Martial Proceedings and Boards of General Officers’ Minutes, British National Archives; DLAR Film 675.

[7] New York Public Library, George Bancroft Collection, 1606-1887; DLAR Film 634.

[8] Morristown National Historical Park, Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, 1776-1783; DLAR Fiche 11.

[9] James L. Kochan and Lion G. Miles, Guide to Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, 1776-1783 (Boston, MA: G.K. Hall & Co., 1989); DLAR Fiche guide 11.

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9 Comments

  • Great overview Brianna ~ And kudos to DLAR’s Librarian, Kathy Ludwig and Exec Dir., Meg Sweeney. They are good at what they do. To all who explore the world of British America, the Revolution, and the early republic owe them a debt of gratitude. And while you are visiting the DLAR, don’t miss the important sites of the Ten Crucial Days Campaigns; McKonkey’s Ferry, Johnson’s Ferry (The Crossing), the Old Barracks and Assunpink Creek (1st and 2nd Battles of Trenton) and the Princeton Battlefield. I’d be happy to talk to anyone about tours of these sites.

  • Great article. The David Library is a wonderful resource in a beautiful setting. I’ve spent happy late afternoons watching the sun go down & the fields fill with deer before evening lectures.

  • Wondering the stacks at the David Library is pure happiness. Granted, it is a bit out of the way for many people, but that makes it akin to finding an ancient temple in the jungle and you get the thrill of discovery. No matter where you live it is worth a special flight and car rental, or a cross country drive, to see this gem of a library.

  • Brianna, this article was really informative! So glad you had the opportunity to contribute to this wonderful organization.

  • Love this place. I spent two full days doing research there and it wasnt even enough time to get used to how much information is there. If i had the option of moving in to the place, even just sleeping between the stacks of microfilm, id be so ok with that if it meant perpetual access to all those documents.

  • I cannot say enough about the importance and value of the David Library. The nature of archival research is that one must travel to do it. The David Library is the closest thing that we have to a “one stop shop” for copies of manuscript sources concerning the American Revolution, allowing a single journey for what would otherwise require several trips to several countries.
    It would be nice to have every source document available in digital form and accessible over the internet, but we’re a long way from that panacea and may never get there. The David Library is the next best thing, aggregating copies of many of the world’s best collections in a single location.

    • Ya, I saw that, but just assumed you were so awestruck at seeing so many great books! A Freudian slip, but very apropos!

    • Wonder is a common affliction at the David Library. I, on the other hand, frequently “blunder” the stacks, accidentally knocking books off the shelves, tripping over things, and forgetting what I was looking for.

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