Transylvania Library

The Lexington Public Library was originally established in 1795 as the Transylvania Library by wealthy citizens of Lexington, who “proposed the formation of a library for the benefit of the students of Transylvania Seminary – who has no sufficient library of their own – and for future pleasure and instructions of the citizens of Lexington.”

Tradition holds that the first meeting to organizing the library was held on New Year Day at the old State House[1], where the first legislature session was held in June 1793.[i]  During the prior year, John Breckinridge and Harry Toulmin[2] led discussions regarding the formation of a library for the seminary.  From this meeting, Thomas Hart and Harry Toulmin were appointed respectively Chairman and Secretary of a committee to collect subscriptions for the library.[ii]

On January 6, 1795, the “Library Committee” met at McNair’s Tavern and called “a general meeting of the “fharers” <sharers or shareholders> in the Transylvania Library for January 13, 1795, at six o’clock “to review the articles proposed as a constitution, to pay their subscriptions, to order books into the Library, and to appoint a committee for the present year.”  The notice was signed by Richard Terrell, Robert Barr[3] and James Parker.[iii]

The library was a subscription library with access restricted to shareholders and financed by the sale of shares, annual subscriptions and past due fines.  Shares of stock sold for five dollars per share, maximum number of shares 200 and annual subscriptions were $1.50, payable semi-annually.  Transylvania students were not required to purchase stock, but paid the semi-annual subscription.  The library was opened the first Saturday of each month.  Each shareholder could take out two volumes for every share, which were due the next month.  Late fines started at 10 cents for the first month, then gradually increasing every following month.  See Appendix C – Plan of the Transylvania Library.

On January 13, 1795, “fharers” discussed a “constitution” and scheduled another meeting for the end of the month.  This meeting was also held at McNair’s Tavern.  At that meeting, “every one should come forward prepared to enter into a consideration of the constitution, to nominate a committee, and to propose books amounting in value to at least the sum he subscribes.”[iv]

On January 27, 1795 the shareholders approved the constitution and appointed Robert Barr, John Bradford, John Breckinridge, James Brown, Richard W. Downing, Thomas Hart, Thomas January, James Parker, Samuel Price, Dr. Frederick Ridgely, Harry Toulmin and James Trotter to form the management committee.  In addition, they published the following notice:

“That whereas there are upwards of 100 shares already purchased in the Library; the money shall be send forward and a purchase made of books by one of the <first> opportunities; and the subscribers are requested to pay their subscriptions to any member of the committee, and to mention what books they would wish to have purchase, as the committee will at the next meeting appropriate the money of those who do not think fit to avail themselves of the privilege granted to them by the constitution of the Library, of ordering what books they please to the amount of their subscriptions.”

Thomas Hart, Chairman        H. Toulmin, Clerk [v]

With roughly $500 raised, the Library ordered a selection of 307 books from Philadelphia.  These books finally arrived in January 1796, after being shipped to Lexington over the Allegany Mountains and down the Ohio River to Maysville, then overland to Lexington.  Over the next few years an additional 400 volumes were added to the collection.[vi]

During 1796, the library committee members were Robert Barr, John Bradford, Thomas Hart, Thomas January, James Parker, Samuel Price, Dr. Frederick Ridgely, Harry Toulmin, James Trotter, John W. Hunt, George Nicholas  and J. Watkins.  Hunt, Nicholas and Watkins were new members.[vii]

On October 22, 1796, the committee held a meeting in part to discuss finances.  They passed a resolution:

“That whereas many fharers in the Library, have neglected to pay their half yearly subscriptions of three quarters of a dollar, due in June late; they be informed by public advertisement, that agreeably to the rules of the institution, their shares will be forfeited, if their arrears be not discharged before the commencement of the next year.”

The above notice was published several times over the next two months in the Kentucky Gazette.[viii]

The “fharers” of the Transylvania Library met on February 3, 1798 and authorized the committee to set the compensation of the Librarian.  Once again, they made appeal to those in arrears to pay to the Librarian before June.  The new committee members were John A. Seitz, R. Steward, Charles Humphreys, Montgomery Bell, George R. Trotter and Thomas T. Barr (Chairman).[ix]

In 1798, the Kentucky Academy merged with the Transylvania Seminary, to form the Transylvania University.  The academy was the Presbyterian grammar school.  With the merger, the library received a number of theological volumes, some donated by the Reverend Doctor Gordon (of London, England) and Reverend James Blythe (including works from George Washington, John Adams, Aaron Burr and others). [x]

In January 1799, the library acknowledged the following donations from James M. Bradford (Sacred and Moral Poems), Andrew Holmes (American Edition of the Encyclopedia), John Nancarrow (Brown on Equality) and Stevens’ History of Algiers.[xi]

On January 20, 1799, the Library Committee met and ordered that “if the contributions due thereon are not discharged by the first Saturday in April” that 41 shares would be forfeited.  The shares were Nos. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 15, 23, 29, 30, 33, 34, 41, 45, 47, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 60, 61, 62, 68, 70, 71, 73, 74, 75, 76, 78, 79, 82, 84, 86, 89, 93, 94, 102, 103, 105, 106 and 116.    The committee however, also indicated that “books will be received in payment, for arrearage, shares or contributions; provided they are approved of by the committee, who will meet at the library room, on the first Friday in every month, at 4 o’clock, in the afternoon.” [xii]

McCalla’s Apothecary Shop:

On February 1, 1799, the Library Committee called a general meeting for the 15th, at four o’clock, to approve relocating the collection from the seminary.  The library was still called the Transylvania Library at the time.[xiii]

In April 1799, the Library Committee met and approved the forfeiture of 14 shares of company stock.  The shares were Nos. 34, 41, 54, 55, 70, 71, 73, 75, 76, 79, 82, 93, 94 and 105.[xiv]

In addition, during April 1799, the library was removed from the Seminary, with the consent of their Trustees, to a more central location in the rear room of apothecary store owned by Andrew McCalla[4] on Short Street, at the northeast corner of Short and Market Streets, facing Cheapside[5].  McCalla was paid $50 per year salary as Librarian and rent on the room.  They also announced that the library would be opened on the first Saturday of each month from four o’clock to dark.[xv]

On October 9, 1799, the “fharers” met at the courthouse to authorize the “petitioning the next general assembly to incorporate the library.”[xvi]


[1] The city market house.

[2] Reverend Harry Toulmin was a Unitarian minister from England, who emigrated in search of religious freedom.  He was born during April 1766 and in 1793, he arrived with his family at Norfolk, Virginia.  With the support of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, he was appointed President of the Transylvania Seminary from 1794 to 1796.  In 1796, he was appointed Kentucky Secretary of State, serving until 1804.  In 1804, he was appointed Superior Court Judge for the Mississippi Territory by President Jefferson.  Toulmin ordered the arrest in 1807 of Aaron Burr for treason.  He died in 1823.

[3] Robert Barr was a pioneer merchant, who settled in Lexington in 1784.  He operated a dry goods store on Main Street for about the next 15 years, until his retirement.  He was also a large landowner.  Barr Street was named form him.  After his retirement, his store was operated until 1811 by his sons, Thomas T. and Robert R. Barr.  Both also operated a hemp bagging factory on Maxwell Street.  Thomas T. Barr became a prominent lawyer and member of the Kentucky legislature in 1817.  His younger son, Robert R. Barr, graduated in 1802 with A. B. degree from Transylvania University.  He became a wealthy real estate developer, with his brother in law, Elisha Warfield.  Both brothers were involved with the Lexington Library.

[4] Before 1793, Andrew McCalla moved to Kentucky from Philadelphia.  He purchased a farm in Jessamine County, about 9 miles from Lexington.  After selling his farm during the summer of 1795, be purchased a large lot on the northeast corner of Market and Short Streets, facing the courthouse.  He established an apothecary store.  He was a prominent member of the First Presbyterian Church and a founder of Eastern State Insane Hospital.  He was involved with the Transylvania Library and became Librarian in April 1799, after the moved from the seminary.  He resigned as Librarian during January 1804.

[5] This site was later the Lexington Herald-Leader Building.


[i] Lexington Herald, September 15, 1901, page 11, columns 3-6.

[ii] Kentucky Gazette, January 24, 1795, page 1, column 4.

[iii] Kentucky Gazette, January 10, 1795, page 1, column 2.

[iv] Kentucky Gazette, January 17, 1795, page 3, column 1.

[v] Kentucky Gazette, February 21, 1795, Extra page 2.

[vi] “Extracts from Record of the Orders, Resolutions and Proceeding of the Sharer and Directors of the Lexington Library,” page 4, Bullett, Mary K., “The Lexington Library – The First West of the Allegheny Mountains,” 1902, page 2 (printed in Lexington Herald, January 19, 1902, section 2, page 2, columns 1-6), Lexington Public Library, “Historical Sketch of Old Lexington Library,” Seventeenth Annual Report (December 31, 1916), Lexington, 1917 and William A. Leavy, “Memoir of Lexington and Its Vicinity,” Kentucky Historical Society Register, 1942, page 129.

[vii] Kentucky Gazette, February 13, 1796, page 2, column 3.

[viii] Kentucky Gazette, October 29, 1796, page 1, column 1.

[ix] Kentucky Gazette, January 17, 1798, page 3, column 3 and February 14, 1798, page 1, column 1 and page 3, column 4.

[x] Ranck, George W., History of Lexington, Kentucky: Its Early Annals and Recent Progress, Robert Clarke & Company, Cincinnati, 1872, page 195.

[xi] Kentucky Gazette, January 31, 1799, page 3, column 2.

[xii] Kentucky Gazette, February 7, 1799, page 2, column 2.

[xiii] Kentucky Gazette, February 7, 1799, page 2, column 2.

[xiv] Kentucky Gazette, May 23, 1799, page 3, column 2.

[xv] Kentucky Gazette, May 23, 1799, page 1, column 3 and “Extracts,” page 1.

[xvi] Kentucky Gazette, September 26, 1799, page 10, column 4.

William M. Ambrose, Lexington Public Library - Founded 1795 / Free 1898, Limestone Press, Lexington, 2012.

Enter your e-mail address.

Enter the password that accompanies your e-mail.