How did public libraries get started?


Dear Straight Dope:

I googled the hell out of this and the best resources I could find (Wikipedia, etc.) could only tell me about the origin of libraries in general, back in ancient times, or the beginnings of specific libraries in America. Call it nerdy curiosity if you want, but I am kind of young (25) and so do not know a time before public lending libraries. They have been all over the place in the different states I have lived. They let you borrow and read all sorts of books--for free! Call me crazy but I started wondering, how did the public libraries as we know them today come about? Some bibliophile President or First Lady in the 1950s decided it was important and got the ball rolling or something? And how do they stay around? Even if the books are donated, the staff are volunteers, and taxes pay for necessities, that still doesn't cover the property and building itself, let alone new books and computer systems. Don't tell me it's all late fees!

Dex replies:

Questions like this can make a guy feel really old. I assure you that public libraries as we know them today considerably predate the 1950s. In fact, they date back to the nineteenth century–in other words, almost to the dawn of time.

You may already have run across this while googling ancient history, but I’ll tell you anyway: A man named Amit Anu had the title "Tabl Keeper” at the royal library at Ur in roughly 2000 BC. He was the earliest known librarian. No word if he was the first to tell unruly sixth-graders to shush.

The first order of business is to define “public library.” Presumably we mean a library that:

  1. Is publicly owned and supported by taxes;
  2. Is open to any citizen who desires to use it, and
  3. Contains a wide range of material, both popular and scholarly.

In that sense, public libraries didn’t arise in Europe until the late 19th or even early 20th century. However, this article will focus on the U.S., since that’s where you encountered public libraries. Here public libraries didn’t just suddenly happen, they evolved over time.

Let’s start with a little scene-setting. Small private libraries existed in America from early colonial times. Ministers and doctors, for instance, usually had small private collections, as did churches and colleges, ranging from a few dozen volumes to a few hundred. In the 1700s, many of these church collections were available to the public (well, to their parishioners, anyhow), but there was usually no system for preserving or maintaining them, and they just wasted away over the years.

Colleges and universities had private libraries as early as 1638, when the Reverend John Harvard bequeathed a recently-founded college around 280 books and an endowment. The school adopted his name and went on to build a fair reputation for itself. At the time, books symbolized wealth: scholars and colleges often measured their affluence based on the size of their book collections.

The typical college library was small, usually fewer than 25,000 donated volumes. There was no formal support from the administration. Some unlucky faculty member was appointed to supervise the library, in addition to his regular duties. Generally it was a job he didn’t want, since it carried no additional compensation. Books were only available to students during limited times–say, a few hours a day or even a week. If there was any logic to how the books were organized, it was something a local person had patched together.

Three trends led to our present public library system.

1 – Social Libraries

The first trend is the so-called “social library,” invented by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin had a significant private library of his own–he had over 4,000 books at the time of his death in 1790. In 1731, he initiated a “subscription library” as a way of sharing books among members of a literary society. It was incorporated in 1742 as the Library Company of Philadelphia, the first established in the U.S. You could join the library by buying stock in the company. Books were only available to members. We’re not sure what role Franklin had in this venture; his own writings are boastful and probably overstate his contribution. However, he was certainly influential in getting the idea rolling.

Once the idea took hold, social libraries became very popular. Basically, these were book collections shared among specific users. Formats, membership requirements, and structures varied considerably. Most charged a fee for membership and usually required members to own stock, generally around $5 per share. Some allowed guests to subscribe for a fixed term for a fee. Some were focused on a particular subject, usually something scholarly and important.

One variant on the social library was the Athenaeum. The first was founded in Boston in 1807 and focused on scholarly magazines and newspapers. Members were from the richest and highest class of society. An Athenaeum was basically a gentlemen’s social club (women were seldom allowed in the early days) with a collection of reading material. The cost was high, around $300 for a share of stock, to keep out the riff-raff. The Boston Athenaeum was the first one to employ women, beginning in 1857.

Another variant on the social library was the mercantile library, aimed at middle class young men, “to promote orderly and virtuous habits, diffuse knowledge and the desire for knowledge, improve the scientific skill” and create good citizens. Mercantile libraries were usually funded by contributions from the benevolent rich, to help educate the masses (usually their employees, such as factory workers or mercantile clerks). They were fueled by the American Dream (1800s style) that anyone could succeed if given the right knowledge.

Social libraries were a significant achievement, but they were never financially secure. There wasn’t a large stock-buying public, so the libraries were typically funded by contributions from the wealthy and powerful. In prosperous times, the libraries expanded their collections, increased staff, and extended hours. In hard economic times, contributions dried up, and social libraries often were dissolved.

2 – Circulating libraries

The second trend was the “circulating” library, which also developed in the late 1700s. These were often housed in bookstores or print shops, and rented out books. They offered popular materials such as the latest fiction, including that 18th century innovation, (gasp!) novels. What was probably the first circulating library was opened by William Rind of Anapolis, Maryland, in 1762. It only lasted two years, but the idea caught on.

3 – School district libraries

School districts were expected to have books available for their students. There was no system, of course; it was all haphazard, and what got donated usually was none too interesting. Plus, the schools couldn’t afford maintenance or upkeep. Horace Mann, secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, pushed for school libraries in the 1830s, raising a basic question: After we educate our children, what do they have to read? Educators and eventually legislators looked to the school district library (funded through taxes) to provide reading for adults as well as children.

Putting the three trends together

The three types of libraries (social, circulating, and school district) all contributed to the evolution of public libraries. From social libraries, we get the concept of sharing books and focusing on quality. Circulating libraries introduced the inclusion of popular materials, and school district libraries gave us the idea of public funding.

The first library to combine those three principles was the town library of Peterborough, New Hampshire, founded in 1833. It was mainly an accident. New Hampshire had collected taxes to start a state college, but the effort fizzled and the money was allocated among various towns to support education. Peterborough decided to use some of the money to purchase books for a town library–a publicly owned institution, free to all residents. The idea apparently proved popular; in 1849, New Hampshire became the first state to pass a law permitting local taxes to support public libraries.

The Boston Public Library opened in 1854, and is usually considered the “real” first public library–that is, intentionally founded, not a happy accident. Its statement of purpose basically says:

  • There’s a close linkage between knowledge and right thinking;
  • The future of democracy is contingent on an educated citizenry;
  • There’s a strong correlation between the public library movement and public education; and
  • Every citizen has the right of free access to community-owned resources.

The growth of the public library

In 1876, the U.S. centennial year, the American Library Association held a conference in Philadelphia. Roughly one hundred librarians (including 13 women) gathered “for the purpose of promoting the library interests of the country." Topics at the meeting included what sort of readers to allow into the libraries and what sort of books they should be permitted to use. This was all new. In the past, collections were pretty well defined, as were the members/readers. But with cheap paper and mass production, new books were being published at unprecedented rates, and librarians wanted to provide guidance to the masses on appropriate reading.

The youngest member present at the 1876 meeting was Melvil Dewey (1851-1931)–no doubt his last name rings a bell. Dewey had a profound impact on the development of libraries. Under the slogan “the best reading for the largest number at the least cost,” he was elected president of the ALA in 1890 and began to standardize libraries, in the process largely inventing the look and feel of the modern library. Nearly every aspect of today’s library stems from Dewey’s obsession with standardization and efficiency, from how to classify subject matter to the size and margins of library cards. Any visitor to any library organized according to Dewey’s methods could find his/her way around without difficulty. Familiar practices initiated by Dewey include:

  • The Dewey Decimal Classification system, a standardized method of cataloging, filing, and placing books on shelves to make them accessible
  • Long open hours
  • A reference department
  • A cataloging department
  • An author-title card catalog and a subject card catalog
  • Arranging books on shelves based on their classification numbers
  • Overdue fines
  • Circulation records, based on slips and classification numbers.

From 1890 through 1914, public libraries expanded rapidly in number, collection size, and staff. The role of women grew substantially; by 1878, two-thirds of library workers at the Boston Public Library were female. (Aside: the use of female staff was not done to advance women’s rights, but to subordinate female librarians to male professors and other experts.) Free public libraries were established in cities such as Los Angeles (1889), New York (1895), New Orleans (1896), and Brooklyn (1897). They often absorbed smaller social libraries.

One of the prime movers behind the expansion of public libraries during this period was the Scottish-born industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1911), one of the famous “robber barons” of the last decades of the 1800s. Early libraries had catered chiefly to scholars and the upper classes. They were only open during the day, when the working classes were working, and many imposed age restrictions on use. How dreadful if the proles were allowed in–they’d mistreat the books, destroy the collections, and cause chaos!

Carnegie, however, thought libraries and books should be available to everyone. Interestingly, he was attacked by both the right, which called him a Communist for wanting to use taxes for libraries, and the left, which viewed taxes as a drain on the working man. By 1920, the Carnegie estate had donated $50 million to erect 2,500 library buildings, including 1,700 in the U.S.–by far the most sustained and widespread philanthropic enterprise ever devoted to libraries. Carnegie’s donations got libraries started in small towns, not just big cities, throughout America. Some communities refused Carnegie’s money because it was tainted, but basically we can thank Carnegie for the modern U.S. public library system.

Libraries also were growing in scope. Reference departments were standard by 1900, as were open shelves (despite librarians’ fears about misplacement of materials and extra wear and tear on the books). A system of interlibrary loans to meet the special needs of scholars and students was established.

The first children’s libraries were founded in the 1890s. As late as 1894, 70% of libraries still had age restrictions, but by 1908, circulation of materials to children accounted for around one-third of total library lending.

The library was also a haven for the waves of immigrants arriving after 1890 and, equally importantly, for their children. Storytelling was used to socialize immigrants and teach the customs and expectations of U.S. society. Libraries came to resemble community centers, waging a war for “Americanization." By the 1920s the term “adult education” had entered the library vocabulary.

Financial support was curtailed during the Depression, but the demand for services grew. The library reading room was a place to go–it was warm, there was no charge, and it provided activities. Libraries were faced with the need to expand services while facing curtailed budgets, and so were forced to consider changes in storage, acquisition, circulation, and other aspects of their operations.

During the run-up to WWII, Americans were appalled by newsreel footage of Nazi soldiers burning books. In reaction they embraced libraries–if the fascists were against them, there must be something good about them. President Franklin Roosevelt issued a proclamation late in 1941 supporting libraries as “essential to the functioning of a democratic society” and “the great tools of scholarship, the great repositories of culture, and the great symbols of the freedom of the mind.” After the war, the Library Services Act was passed in 1956, allowing federal funding for libraries.

Alas, book burning didn’t stop with the Nazis. Totalitarian governments throughout the 20th century not only wanted to dictate what people read but also what they couldn’t read. A few examples: When China invaded Tibet, the Chinese army burned hundreds of thousands of books from the monasteries. The Cultural Revolution in China (around 1967) saw the wholesale destruction of books containing unacceptable ideas. The Taliban burned over 50,000 books in northern Afghanistan when they came to power. As recently as 1992, Serbian nationalists opened fire on the Bosnian library in Sarajevo and killed firefighters who came to rescue the books–all part of the campaign against Bosnian culture. The list, sadly, goes on.

Those who fear free thought and public access to ideas don’t always do something dramatic like burning books; sometimes they confine themselves to restricting availability. In the 1940s, around 90% of libraries in the South were closed to blacks. Today, we still hear of efforts by parents’ groups to forbid books such as Catcher in the Rye, the Harry Potter series, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or whatever science texts don’t conform to their world-view.

The public library today

Today there are roughly 9,000 public libraries in the U.S. plus another 8,000 if branch libraries are counted. Most of these (about 60%) are small public libraries serving communities of under 10,000 in population. The demands made on them and their financial support depend heavily on the nature of the population they serve. However, these small public libraries account for under 10% of total budgets, staff, and materials. Most library activity arises from large libraries, serving 100,000 people or more.

The modern library in the computer age is in a state of massive change (that is, crisis.) The question of “What belongs in a library?” is being revisited: What’s worthless and what’s worthy? Libraries must deal with lack of space and lack of funding even as more is being published than ever before. Acquisition cost are skyrocketing, to say nothing of costs for staffing, preserving, and maintaining not just the materials but the building. Computer equipment takes up an increasing percentage of budgets, as do services for special-needs individuals.

As you say, volunteer staff aren’t paid (although there are still some costs involved). However, most library staff is paid; expenditures for personnel represent between 50% and 70% of the library’s total budget. Around 20% to 30% of the budget goes for materials, and the remaining 10%-20% for other expenses, such as building maintenance, equipment, etc.

Small public libraries usually have around five full-time staff or equivalent. There’s a range of positions, although the casual visitor may not know the difference:

  • Professional librarians with at least a master’s degree in library science
  • Support staff, including para-professionals, technical specialists, clerks, and library assistants, with educational backgrounds ranging from high school graduate to post-graduate degree
  • Pages, a subset of support staff, who do shelving for low pay, for which reason the positions are often filled by high school students or retirees
  • Volunteers, who assist overworked staff, provide special expertise, and generally save money. There are still costs involved: Volunteers need training, among other things nowadays in Internet and computer usage, which can take an enormous amount of time and energy. Plus, as most charitable organizations can attest, volunteers are often unreliable. Moreover, many professional librarians fear that reliance on volunteers will give government an excuse to cut budgets even more drastically.

Libraries are constantly faced with the problem of trying to do a lot with limited funding. Usually, the library has a board of trustees (sometimes publicly elected) who have legal responsibility for operating or funding the library. Day-to-day administration is in the hands of a professional library director who in larger libraries may be assisted by a treasurer, assistant or associate directors, and heads of administrative departments such as personnel, information systems, etc.

Around 85% of library funding comes from taxes–federal, state, and local. The rationale behind government involvement is that libraries serve the public good. State law determines the autonomy and taxing power of local public libraries. Typically the law sets a ceiling on taxes; higher levels require a referendum.

Most local funds for libraries come from property taxes, the same as for the police, schools, and courts. Local taxes can vary widely among communities. Some inner-city and rural libraries just don’t have the tax base to support an adequate library, and so must rely on state or national funds. The majority of states have grant programs, often begun in the 1930s, to help support local libraries. Generally, state formulas for funds distribution are based on geography and per-capita income in order to help poorer districts. In return, most states impose eligibility requirements regarding hours of operation, trained personnel, etc.

Federal funds are available to local libraries through grant programs such as those administered by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), although budget cuts in the last decade or so have significantly reduced this source of income. According to Gertzog and Beckerman, “Most library planners regard a mix of 50% local, 30% state, and 20% federal as an ideal support distribution for public libraries. Normative figures reveal that the spread is closer to 85-95% local, 5-10% state, and less than 5% (indirect) federal.” That was in 1994; in 2002, federal funding was less than 1% of library operating income.

In addition to public money, some private sources of funding are available. Most libraries seek private-sector donations from both corporations and individuals, including endowments, gifts, and grants. In addition, libraries commonly impose small fees for services such as Internet access, photocopying, DVD rentals, etc. The basic loan of materials or the provision of information, however, is never charged for. Well, hardly ever–some libraries impose borrowing fees on non-residents. Fines for overdue materials are seldom an important revenue source.

By the way, donations needn’t be financial. Many libraries will accept DVDs, CDs, videos, books, etc. For example, my own local library accepts all in-kind contributions happily; a committee sorts out what they want to keep, and the remainder is sent to specialty libraries, e.g., in veterans’ center, prisons, special-needs schools, etc. Many libraries also have fund-raising sales of material that is no longer needed–for instance, a library may order multiple copies of a best-seller, but then a year or two later need only one or two copies on the shelf. So we end with a suggestion: Next time you’re looking for a present for someone who has everything, make a contribution on their behalf to your local library.


Administration of the Public Library, Alice Gertzog and Edwin Beckerman, 1994

Library: An Unquiet History, Matthew Battles, 2003

History of Libraries in the Western World, by Michael H. Harris, 1995

Foundations of Library and Information Science, by Richard E. Rubin, 2004.

Send questions to Cecil via


Comment on this Column