During the pandemic, I missed a lot of things. Social gatherings. Reliable school schedules. Hugs.
But, honestly, the thing I missed the most was my public library. I never truly appreciated its existence or the simple joy it offered—hundreds if not thousands of books, free of charge, for me to peruse at my leisure. Free internet access. Historical archives. Crafts and stories for my kids.
I had taken it for granted. I’d never even stopped to think about a time without libraries. Because, at least for the U.S., there really wasn’t one.
The idea of a library is nothing new. There is evidence, in fact, that as far back as Ancient Rome, scrolls of writings were available to patrons of bath houses. Public libraries, however, are something distinctly more American.
After the settlement of the colonies, parochial libraries became common. Religious texts were available through the local parish, and traveling missionaries took these books with them on their travels, handing them out to colonists who may not have otherwise had access (making missionaries one of the first American book-mobiles!)
However, the 18th century brought with it the Enlightenment Period, an explosion of emphasis on knowledge, literature, and art, which gave rise to both literacy rates and the prevalence of non-religious texts. Book salons and clubs (for women and men, respectively) became popular for the wealthy as a place to share and discuss ideas and literature, but poor and middle class society were left out of such leisure time activities.
Enter Benjamin Franklin. His club, Junto, a prominent literary and philosophical group in Philadelphia, was looking for a way to increase access to books and thus improve their discussions. He and other members decided to take up a collection–forty shillings per person–and purchase a collection of books, which would be available to members, thus creating the first “subscription library” in the United States. Known as “The Library Company,” Junto’s collection was readily accessible to paying members, but non-members were required to provide collateral for their borrowed material. Subscription or “membership” libraries soon sprang up in cities all over the United States.
A good start, but still a bit unattainable for some members of society.
But Franklin also had a hand in the creation of the first lending library. A town in Massachusetts named itself Franklin after him and, as a show of gratitude, Franklin donated 116 books to the town. (Interesting side note, the town requested a church bell, but Franklin decided on books instead, believing “sense” was more important than “sound.”) Because the books were a gift to the entire town, the people voted to make them available to everyone free of charge.
However, while the notion of lending libraries became wildly popular, the logistics of housing and cataloguing books became an issue. Because of a lack of money, there was often no designated space for books or workers who could keep track and care for them. As such, makeshift libraries were often crammed into general stores or post offices. In addition, the books themselves had to be donated from private citizens–there were no funds available to buy books specifically for the public good.
All of that changed on April 9, 1833, when the town of Peterborough, New Hampshire established the first tax-supported public library in the country. At a town meeting, the people voted to use funds from the State Literary Fund, tax money originally collected for the creation of a State Library but which ended up being inadequate, “for the purchase of books to establish a library, free to all the citizens of Peterborough.” (History of Peterborough Town Library)
Starting in Peterborough, the notion of a tax-supported library, open to all, offering free books and services to the general public, regardless of age or socio-economic status, took off after the Civil War. Soon, public libraries could be found in nearly every corner of the United States. Although their roles have continually changed over the years–computers over card catalogues and faxes over filings–over 150 years since their inception, public libraries remain one of the last free institutions whose purpose remains solely the betterment and enlightenment of its patrons.