The Library In America

The Library In America

Today’s public library is a vibrant place, housing books, movies and music, giving access to the internet and offering a wide variety of free programming while remaining as ever a ‘third place,’ not home or work, for people to gather and build community. Yet, like most long-lived institutions, it’s easy to think libraries of the past looked similar to libraries today. Given that this hub has existed in our country since 1731 (before we even WERE a country) they have evolved quite a bit in that time. Let’s go on a journey to see the ever-shifting story of libraries in America.

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Foundations With a Founding Father

The story of libraries in this country owes a debt to one of our most iconic founding fathers: Benjamin Franklin. As part of a growing circle of learned men, he paved the way for two different libraries. He also formed a private subscriptions library, called The Library Company, in 1731. This private venture involved paying a fee to ‘join’ a library, giving you access to their entire collections. The fees paid for the books, and although private, if a non-member offered collateral, they could have access to the collection. He was also part of a group that spearheaded the creation of a lending library in the community of Franklin, Massachusetts by donating books in 1790. Thus, Franklin was part of two of the first libraries in our country.

Building With Steel

Yet, in the library world, one name looms even larger than even that of Ben Franklin: Andrew Carnegie. The wealthy steel industrialist is responsible for building over 2500 libraries worldwide. Rather than write a blank check, Carnegie wanted to ensure the sustainability of each community library, so he created conditions. In order to secure funds from him each city/county/town needed to have:

1. Secured a site for the building

2. Agreed to use 10% of annual funding to support hiring library staff and ordering materials for a decade

3. Choose from one of 3 established architectural plans

4. Most important: they must commit to free services to the public

By publicizing and popularizing the idea of having a public library, Carnegie is responsible for their widespread construction. By 1920, there were 3500 libraries in the United States, half of them funded by Carnegie. You can find many today still standing in cities and towns across America.

Invasion of the Women

Today, most patrons expect their librarians to be female, but given how far back in history they go, early librarians were exclusively male, and executive power remained in their hands for many years after. Women back then could volunteer, particularly in working with children. That dynamic began changing as librarianship began to demand professional standards and programs began appearing at universities to train new members. The fact that a library degree was not as onerous to complete as a teaching or nursing, gave it an appeal to upper class women who either did not want to pursue those other choices, or, in some case, discovered after the degree that teaching was not for them. After graduating, they were often placed in the burgeoning area of Children’s services and, as a survey done in 1904 shows, they were shut out of executive positions and often paid less than their male counterparts for similar work. Still their numbers in the profession continued to grow, in part due to another appeal of librarianship, a spirit of adventure. All sorts of communities wanted public libraries, including those that held little appeal to male librarians: the rural south and remote west. Women answered the call. In these remote areas, as the only ones with training, they could run the show as they wished with little to no outside interference. Many became important and beloved community members. These two reasons saw more and more women entering the field until they eventually dominated it.

Living Through History

As a publicly funded institution, libraries have had their services subject to outside forces. One of the largest came as a result of Jim Crow laws restricting blacks from accessing them. Nor were they immune from the protest against these laws. Despite these real issues, libraries tried to remain in reach for as many African Americans as possible. After an appeal from W.E.B. DuBois, Carnegie funded several libraries in colored neighborhoods. Other library systems utilized bookmobiles to go into black neighborhoods or arranged their hours so they would not break segregation laws but still allow blacks access. While not at all consistent or complete, libraries did try to live up to their mandate to give as many people access to their collections as possible.

Branching Out

Moving from providing book, libraries have expanded their goals and mission in a number of ways and through several initiatives over the years including:

· Creating specialized services for children and, later, teens

· Using automobiles to create bookmobile services to give access to rural and other communities

· Helping immigrants prepare for citizenship tests

· Collecting thousands of books for servicemen and women during both World Wars

· Developing branch libraries in urban areas to meet the needs of specific communities, making sure they did not have to travel great distances to access services

· Embracing programming as a way to engage with their communities and enhance learning, most notably the creation of the Summer Reading program

· Being early adopters of new technologies in both public services and library management

· Deciding to take a stand against book banning which lead to the creation of Banned Book Week

· Moving collections beyond books to includes not only the obvious, such as movies, music, and digital collections but also items like toys, maps, garden equipment, sewing machines, 3D printers, recording equipment, and even space within the library for group meetings

The death of libraries has been predicted for a few decades now, yet they plod on, retaining the goodwill and support of their communities. Most important, those predicting this death pay little attention to the reality of the modern library. Yet one thing remains the same, from Franklin until now, the public library system in American is one of the most unique and envied in the world. From our evolving services to our open stacks, no institution embraces the spirit of democracy quite like our public libraries. Lady Bird Johnson said it best, “Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only entrance requirement is interest.” And so it remains today.