The Library in America

Guest Blogger,
The east lawn and the eastern exterior of Central Library
The east lawn and the eastern exterior of Central Library, [1977]. William Reagh Collection

Sometimes it feels as though public libraries—free, government-supported, circulating libraries—have always been part of American life, but public libraries were rare before the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It wasn't until 1878 that California cities were allowed to levy a tax to pay for libraries, and the Los Angeles Public Library, founded in 1872, could become the library we know and love today.

What did people do before the public library? They wanted access to books for all the reasons we do—information, self-improvement, and recreation. Often, they wanted other people to have access, too, because they believed that libraries made for better and more successful Americans. For instance, in 1839, a contributor to the Black newspaper The Colored American wrote that young Black men should make a Black community library "their place of resort, and thus instead of injuring their health, wasting their money, and acquiring immoral habits, they might be storing their minds with useful knowledge and... might also establish for themselves a character which time itself could not destroy." Similarly when the California library legislation was proposed, a San Francisco newspaper, the Daily Alta, editorialized that a library would "fortify the morals of the young men of our city, and draw them away from the evil associations into which they are thrown when they spend their evenings in the open street."

It doesn't sound like a lot of fun, but even the most serious libraries were popular in the pre-public library era. Those libraries took several forms.

Subscription Libraries

The earliest libraries in America were private or academic collections, open to very few.

Then, in 1731, Benjamin Franklin and a group of Philadelphia men invented the subscription library. They turned what we'd now call a book group into a library by agreeing to pay an annual fee to fund the purchase of books available to all members. That was the Library Company of Philadelphia. The idea spread across America and Europe.

The founders of the Library Company of Philadelphia included a glazier, a carpenter, and a clerk. However, according to one history, many of the subscription libraries formed after that were founded by a town's elite and were short-lived.

In the 1820s and 30s, subscription libraries flourished in Black communities in the urban north. These membership literary societies had book collections, reading rooms, lectures, and debates. Some were founded by, and were for, Black women, though many were male-only. Perhaps the best known of these societies was founded in 1833, when Black Philadelphians formed the Philadelphia Library Company of Colored People.

Closer to home, in 1853, a Black community subscription library called the San Francisco Athenaeum and Literary society was founded by two Black San Franciscans, William H. Newby and Mifflin Gibbs, both born in Philadelphia. The organization only lasted for a few years but had some success, with a collection of 800 books and periodicals and 70 members in its first year, out of a Black population estimated at less than 400.

Mechanics' societies—voluntary, mutual assistance associations of working people—also formed libraries. The New York society, formed in 1785 by (among others) a shoemaker, a blacksmith, and a carpenter, opened its library, the Apprentice's Library, in 1820. The goal was to "educate apprentices and raise the standard of intelligence among craftsmen." By 1878, there were 8,000 readers at that library, including 4,000 apprentices and 3,000 "girls in shops." The rest were paying readers at $2 a year. Six hundred books circulated daily.

A similar organization, the Mechanics' Institute, opened in San Francisco in 1854. According to the Institute's website, the founders wanted the Institute to include a library with open stacks, a game room for chess and checkers, and classes that would "stretch the mind and teach new skills." They wanted an organization that would be open to everyone regardless of race or gender and which would cost as little as possible. 

In Los Angeles, the Mechanics Society and its reading room were short-lived and existed only between 1856 and 1858.

This period also saw employer funded libraries, which appeared in increasing numbers after 1875. According to one historian, these libraries were viewed by employers as "an investment in a more efficient and more conservative working class." Women's clubs formed libraries, too. The women's club movement began in the 1870s, and many clubs collected books for members' use in connection with study and discussion and shared those books with other clubs or others in the community. Many clubs organized traveling libraries to supply books to places where they were rare, especially for women. An 1898 report of the General Federation of Women's Clubs noted that "a very large percentage of the clubs… are actively engaged in library work; indeed, it seems to be common ground on which we all meet."

Commercial Circulating Libraries

The subscription libraries were popular, but their focus on "improving" books left something out. Readers, no matter how intent on self-improvement, wanted more. Private circulating libraries, run for a profit, supplied the fiction people sought. The first half of the nineteenth century has been called the golden age of the American circulating library. There were circulating libraries associated with bookstores, open whenever the store was, in contrast to the limited hours of many of the subscription libraries. There was a circulating library in a millinery shop and libraries on barges on the Erie Canal and on Mississippi riverboats. There was a big decline in the number of these libraries after the Civil War because the price of books dropped, making book ownership more attractive to the middle classes, which had been their main customers.

(The founding of public libraries hardly resolved the education/recreation conflict. In 1893, the American Library Association issued a guide for small libraries. Out of the 5000 titles recommended, only 803 were fiction. Yet, in that period, public libraries reported that between 65 and 90 percent of books borrowed were works of fiction.)

The Public Library

How did we get from these private libraries to the public library? For one thing, the women's clubs were strong advocates for free public libraries. Although the statistics have been called into doubt, in 1933, the American Library Association estimated that women's clubs were responsible for initiating seventy-five percent of the public libraries then in existence. Notably, though, the clubs were primarily made up of middle-class white women, and at least one historian has written that the clubs were often enforcers of segregation for libraries and elsewhere.

There was also the Carnegie factor. By the time he started his library program, Andrew Carnegie was one of the richest men in the world. His money came from oil and steel and railroads, from what's been described as a combination of hard work, talent, good luck, crony capitalism, and union busting. He believed in accumulating money and giving it away, declaring, "The man who dies thus rich dies in disgrace." Carnegie gave money to many causes but may be best known for the library program.

His first American library gift was an employer's library at his steel plant in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Then, between about 1886 and 1919, he funded almost 1700 library buildings in this country. He funded buildings, not books or library operations. Local governments had begun to accept responsibility for such things as hospitals and schools but not libraries. Carnegie thought that they should. The application for a Carnegie grant had only a few questions, notably asking about the highest rate of library tax levy allowed by law and the rate at which the town would pledge annual support if a building were granted. Carnegie gave buildings in order to force communities to fund libraries.

The public library came to California in 1877 when state senator George H. Rogers of San Francisco and cable car inventor Andrew S. Hallidie held a meeting of "prominent and intellectual gentlemen" to determine the best method for creating a public library for San Francisco. Hallidie had long been a supporter of libraries—he'd been involved with the San Francisco Mechanic's Institute for 40 years.

Rogers told the meeting that "this city needed no public institution so badly as a large, free library, furnishing moral, religious and intellectual food for the masses." The Daily Alta, reporting on the meeting, noted that Rogers had collected information from public libraries in America, England, and Germany and had learned of "the avidity with which people take up the idea of a free public library, and the willingness with which they vote money for its support."

The Rogers Free Library Act was signed into law in March of 1878. The Daily Alta editorialized that "The public library is the complement of the public school; it is a great educational institution. It teaches it amuses, it refines, it occupies, it protects; it stimulates the ambition of the listless; it revives the hope of the despairing; it consoles the sorrowful." And indeed, it does all of that and more.

Recommended Reading

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The Library: A Fragile History
Pettegree, Andrew

Book cover of The desegregation of public libraries in the Jim Crow South : civil rights and local activism
The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South
Wiegand, Wayne A.

Book cover of Not free, not for all : public libraries in the age of Jim Crow
Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow
Knott, Cheryl

Book cover of Forgotten readers : recovering the lost history of African American literary societies
Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies
McHenry, Elizabeth

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Andrew Carnegie
Nasaw, David

book cover
One Hundred Years of Library Service, 1872-1972
Los Angeles Public Library

Book cover of LAPL150-- our story is yours : a Los Angeles Public Library sesquicentennial celebration
LAPL150 - Our Story is Yours: A Los Angeles Public Library Sesquicentennial Celebration
Sherman, James

Book cover for Feels Like Home: Reflections on Central Library
Feels Like Home: Reflections on Central Library

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Written by Kate Kaplan, Central Library Docent