Intern Insights: Literary Societies at the University of Nashville

Guest post by Brenda Thompson

The older books that Brooke and I are processing as part of our internship this semester are part of a collection from the University of Nashville — a school to which Vanderbilt traces its roots, and which had its heyday primarily in the 1800s (it existed as a distinct entity from 1826 until 1909).

As such, some of the features of the books in this collection provide us with a peek into the lives of college students in the 19th century.  For example, many of the books in the collection have one of these bookplates just inside the front cover:


Perhaps because so many of the books contain these bookplates, my curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to do a bit of research to find out more about them.

During the 1800s, college literary societies were an integral part of campus social life.  Run by students, they were independent organizations with their own laws, elected officers, and — as the bookplates above attest — their own libraries.  In fact, in the 1800s, society libraries were common on college campuses, as college libraries were often underfunded and not readily accessible to students.

Colleges often had two or more competing societies, and the University of Nashville was no exception:  For women, the competing societies were the Girls’ Chapter and The Peabody Literary Society; for men, it was the Agatheridan and Erosophian Societies. Members in both groups regularly engaged in formal debates on both historical controversies and pertinent issues of the day — be it the merits of Queen Elizabeth’s decision to behead Mary, Queen of Scots, or the evils of slavery in America.

Whatever else may have changed on college campuses over the last few centuries, it appears that one thing has remained constant — it continues to serve as a space for spirited debate on both historical events and current affairs.

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