free to access, free to lend, free to read

25 August 2014

A Short History of American Public Libraries

Circulating Libraries, funded and operated by booksellers and publishers, started in the United States in the 18th century. In 1731 Benjamin Franklin and a group of associates started the for-profit Library Company of Philadelphia in a private residence. After contributing a membership buy-in, members were sold and lent – for a fee – materials.

Soon thereafter these lending libraries began charging subscription fees on a yearly, quarterly, or monthly basis without the required membership buy-in or per lending fee. As is still true today with materials of a variety of media, a portion of the sale, rental, or subscription fee was paid as a royalty to the publisher.

By 1820 the first free lending libraries began to appear with donated and purchased general and specialized collections such as the collections of the Apprentices’ Library, also in Philadelphia. Members, restricted to white males, studied to raise themselves up through continued education.

The first of the modern Circulating Library, in a major urban community, as we know it today was opened in Boston in 1854. Free to all, free to lend Circulating Libraries were funded through taxes and donations. As the opportunity to read on any day is catch-as-catch-can, lending of materials was and is critical to the working class pursuit of education and enrichment.

Even in Boston, however, these libraries were not free to all. Membership was difficult if not impossible for undesirables and without membership there was no access. Undesirables consisted of people of color, certain immigrant populations, people employed in positions of ill repute (according to good people), et al.

These denials of access to people of color were institutionalized throughout the south. In many states, for an educator or a student, it was still illegal to teach a person of color to write. Teaching or learning to read was seen as violating the spirit of the law in those southern states and the community standards throughout many of the other states. This, of course, meant no access to many libraries.

It would be decades before people of color could access common community library facilities throughout the northern states. It would be decades more before separate “black libraries” of the modern circulating library type were available in larger communities in the south. Decades more would pass before separate but equal was struck down and then decades more before unencumbered access.

Free to all, free to read, and free to lend is the fundamental principle of the American Public Library systems.