The Russian-American Company's directors were in St. Petersburg while its Chief Manager lived and worked in Sitka. The library there held "more than 1,200 books, valued at some 7,500 rubles. More than 600 of these are in Russian, about 300 in French, 130 in German, 35 in English, 30 in Latin and the rest in Swedish, Dutch, Spanish and Italian." The books were collected from the elite of St. Petersburg by Active Chancellor Rezanov prior to sailing to the Pacific in 1803. In 1810, this rich library had no peer anywhere nearby.

As the crow flies, what was the nearest bigger library ?

My reading suggests that it could be in New York (closer by geodesic distance than Guadalajara, Mexico City, or Irkutsk).


Philadelphia is 2,881 miles from Sitka, edging out New York City at 2,888 miles distance. When the U.S. Government left in 1800, it had become the new nation's largest and most populous city (67,787 inhabitants) and it's busiest port. New York only overtook Philadelphia in these categories following the War of 1812. Benjamin Franklin, with others, founded the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731 and by 1810

The Library absorbed smaller lending libraries and outgrew its rooms, renting larger space on the second floor of the new Carpenters' Company hall in 1773. "The Books (inclosed within Wire Lattices) are kept in one large Room," Franklin was informed in London, "and in another handsome Apartment the [scientific] Apparatus is deposited and the Directors meet."

In 1792 the Loganian Library, which had been housed across the square, was transferred to the Library Company, complementing its collection with the 2600 books (chiefly in Latin and Greek) that had been collected by James Logan. This collection was supplemented by the medical library of James Logan's younger brother, a physician in Bristol, England, the best medical library then in North America. Thornton's new building immediately required a new wing.

Thanks to kimchi-lover:

Page xxix of Catalogue of the Books of the Library Company of Philadelphia lists the LCP as having about 25,000 works (in 44,000 volumes) in 1835, up from 18,000 volumes in 1807.

However, the newly established Library of Congress in Washington D.C., just 2,862 miles from Sitka, would likely have been the nearest comparable library in 1810. This would certainly have been the case following Jeffferson's donation of his personal library in 1814. Prior to that Jefferson's personal library is a candidate, at just 2,854 miles from Sitka.

In 1800, as part of an act of Congress providing for the removal of the new national government from Philadelphia to Washington, President John Adams approved an act of Congress providing $5,000 for books for the use of Congress—the beginning of the Library of Congress. A Joint Congressional Committee—the first joint committee—would furnish oversight. In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson approved a legislative compromise that made the job of Librarian of Congress a presidential appointment, giving the Library of Congress a unique relationship with the American Presidency. Jefferson named the first two Librarians of Congress, each of whom also served as the clerk of the House of Representatives.

It was also former President Jefferson, retired to Monticello, who came to the new Library’s rescue during the War of 1812. In 1814, the British burned Washington, destroying the Capitol and the small congressional library in its north wing. Congress accepted Jefferson’s offer to sell his comprehensive personal library of 6,487 books to “recommence” its own library. Jefferson’s concept of universality is the rationale for the comprehensive collecting policies of today’s Library of Congress.

Other prominent libraries in the new United States at that time include

Closer than all of these however were the new libraries of Canada:

  • Jesuit Library at Quebec City (2,711 miles distant), founded c1750
  • Legislative collection of Lower Canada, Quebec City, founded 1791
  • Montreal Public Library (2,682 miles) founded 1796
  • Legislative Collection of Upper Canada at Kingston (2,630 miles), founded 1792
  • Niagara Public Library (likely Queenston, 2,583 miles distant) founded 1800

Finally, Joseph Papineau and his son Louis Joseph Papineau were both prominent politicians in Quebec in the late 18th and early 19th century. (This family was prominent in Quebec politics and journalism for several generations, until the family scion died at the Somme in 1917.) Their family home was at Montebello on the Ottawa River (just 2,624 miles from Sitka). By the time Louis Joseph retired in 1846 his personal library was over 6,000 volumes, housed in one of the 4 towers of the recently completed manor house at Montebello. (While not Montecello, neither was it Swiss cheese.)

I can't yet confirm that the Papineau library exceeded 1200 volumes in 1810 However the Papineau pere et fils were respectively 58 and 24, wealthy well educated members of elite Quebec society; I find it extremely likely that they already had a substantial library at that time.

  • @AaronBrick: It seems that many of the Founding Fathers had substantial personal libraries, typically rivalling or in many cases vastly exceeding, that at Sitka. Combined with the substantial libraries at Harvard and Yale, determining precisely which of these best meets your criteria is likely impossible. – Pieter Geerkens Jul 7 '18 at 3:03
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    Interesting angle. I guess I'd be surprised if the Canadian libraries were so large at the time. Jefferson's library seems a very strong candidate. – Aaron Brick Jul 8 '18 at 3:41
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    @AaronBrick: I was thinking that with two notable libraries in Quebec City, the total collection might exceed 1200 books. But I cannot find numbers for any of the Canadian libraries at this time. Quebec City was already 202 years old in 1810 after all. – Pieter Geerkens Jul 8 '18 at 3:48
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    Page xxix of librarycompany.org/about/… lists the LCP as having about 25,000 works (in 44,000) volumes in 1835. – kimchi lover Jul 8 '18 at 12:05
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    And in 1807, LCP had 18,000 volumes, according to librarycompany.org/about/… – kimchi lover Jul 8 '18 at 16:35

So if the Russian American Company library in Sitka, Alaska had the same number of books - about 1200 to 1300? - from 1803 to 1867 it would have been the largest library for thousands of miles around for many years.

The Library Company of Philadelphia's library, about 2,881 miles from Sitka, acquired the Loganian Library of 2,600 books in 1792, and thus was already larger than the Sitka Library in 1803.

Washington DC is only 2,871 miles from Sitka. The Library of Congress might have already been larger than the Sitka library when it was burned in 1814 by the British. The Library of Congress began to be reassembled in 1815, and Thomas Jefferson's entire personal collection of 6,487 books was purchased.

And Jefferson's home in Montecello was only 2,854 miles from Sitka, Alaska, so he was likely to have had a larger library than the Sitka one a Montecello for some of the years after 1803, though he may have kept some or all of the books at the White House in 1801-1809.

New Orleans, Louisiana, is 2,861 miles from Sitka, Alaska, and it's population grew from 8,500 in 1805 to 102,000 in 1840. The first college in New Orleans was founded in 1834, and I am sure that there were a few libraries with over 1,200 books in New Orleans by 1867.

What is now Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA, 2,841 miles from Sitka, was founded as a female seminary in 1742. It is possible that it might have had a library of more than 1,200 books by 1803.

Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is 2,837 miles from Sitka, and had a rapidly growing population of thousands by 1801. The first college in Lancaster was founded in 1787. Lancaster was the capital of Pennsylvania from 1799 to 1812. Thus it should have had one or more libraries with at least 1,200 books by 1867.

Pittsburgh, Pa is 2,676 miles from Sitka. Pittsburgh Academy, founded in 1787, became the Western University of Pennsylvania in 1819 and might possibly have had a larger library than Sitka during that period.

Lexington, Kentucky is 2,626 miles from Sitka. Transylvania University was founded in 1780 and moved to Lexington in 1789. It might possibly have had a larger library than Sitka during the period in question.

St. Louis, Missouri, is only 2,386 miles from Sitka, Alaska. The population of St. Louis grew from 1,200 in 1804 to 77,870 in 1850. The first college in St. Louis was founded in 1818. It seems certain there were a few libraries with more than 1,200 books in St. Louis by 1867.

Santa Fe, New Mexico, is only 2,004 miles from Sitka, Alaska and was founded in 1610. But I rather doubt that it would have had a bigger library than Sitka by 1867.

San Francisco, California is only 1,457 miles from Sitka and rapidly expanded into a major city during and after the Gold Rush. Thus it may have had libraries with more than 1,200 books before 1867.

Thus, during the period of 1803 to 1867, the location of the nearest library with more books than the Sitka library probably changed several times as cities closer to Sitka grew and libraries were established closer and closer to Sitka.

  • Year of interest in 1810. Can you edit to emphasize the estimated/known size of these libraries as of that point in time? By 1862 Victoria, British Columbia, was already incorporated as a city and capital of the colony, at only 775 miles from Sitka, making settlement further away moot. – Pieter Geerkens Jul 8 '18 at 14:59
  • Pieter Geerkens - Thomas Jefferson's private library of over 6,000 books should have been at Montecello, 2,845 miles from Sitka, in 1810. The place to look in 1810 should be a city and/or university library in Canada or the Ohio or Mississippi valleys I think. – MAGolding Jul 11 '18 at 20:36
  • @Pieter Geerkens. I added another possibility, what is now Moravian College in Bethlehem Pa. – MAGolding Jul 11 '18 at 20:46
  • Intriguing possibility.... – Aaron Brick Jul 11 '18 at 21:04
  • I also added Transylvania University in Kentucky. – MAGolding Jul 11 '18 at 21:06

The library of the Jesuit college of Durango had 2,555 books, worth 3,345 pesos, when it was taken over by the local diocese in 1767. At the end of the century the library had grown to around 3,830 volumes. The mileage (a unit of measure already established in other answers) between Durango and Sitka is 2746.

The holdings statistics come up in the article "La biblioteca del Colegio de Guadiana de los jesuitas" by Jose de la Cruz Pacheco Rojas, in the book he edited called "Los Jesuitas en el Norte de Nueva Espana: Sus contribuciones a la Educacion y El Sistema Misional". The actual inventory of the books is in the National Historical Archive in Madrid.

  • That book is scanned here, referred to in this history. A little work on generating links and quote would earn an up-vote from this reader. – Pieter Geerkens Sep 17 at 1:26

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