Public library

Public library
The Toronto Reference Library, centerpiece of the Toronto Public Library system
Librarians and patrons at a library in the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County system, a large urban public library
Interior of a spacious room with lots of desks with lights and people studying
Panoramic view of the research room at the New York Public Library
Biblioteca Municipal de Guayaquil
Reading area in a Singapore public library
Chorlton cum Hardy Public Library, Greater Manchester, England
Libraries often display exhibits inside and outside the structures, as this sculpture of a little girl reading at the public library in Trinidad, Colorado.

A public library is a library that is accessible by the public and is generally funded from public sources (such as tax money) and operated by civil servants. There are five fundamental characteristics shared by public libraries. The first is that they are supported by taxes (usually local, though any level of government can and may contribute); they are governed by a board to serve the public interest; they are open to all and every community member can access the collection; they are entirely voluntary in that no one is ever forced to use the services provided; and public libraries provide basic services without charge.[1]

Public libraries exist in many countries across the world and are often considered an essential part of having an educated and literate population. Public libraries are distinct from research libraries, school libraries, and other special libraries in that their mandate is to serve the general public's information needs (rather than the needs of a particular school, institution, or research population). Public Libraries also provide free services such as preschool story times to encourage early literacy, or book clubs to encourage appreciation of literature in adults. Public libraries typically allow users to take books and other materials off the premises temporarily; they also have non-circulating reference collections and provide computer and Internet access to patrons.

"The public library is an excellent model of government at its best. A locally controlled public good, it serves every individual freely, in as much or as little depth as he or she wants."[2]


Services offered

In addition to print books and periodicals, most public libraries today have a wide array of other media including audiobooks, e-books, CDs, cassettes, videotapes, DVDs, and video games, as well as facilities to access the Internet and inter-library loans (borrowing items from other libraries). Readers' advisory is a fundamental public library service that involves suggesting fiction and nonfiction titles (often called "readalikes").

Public libraries may also provide other services, such as community meeting rooms, storytelling sessions for infants, toddlers, preschool children, or after-school programs, all with an intention of developing early literacy skills and a love of books. In person and on-line programs for reader development, language learning, homework help, free lectures and cultural performances, and other community service programs are common offerings. One of the most popular programs offered in public libraries are summer reading programs for children, families, and adults. In rural areas, the local public library may have, in addition to its main branch, a mobile library service, consisting of one or more buses furnished as a small public library, serving the countryside according to a regular schedule.

Public libraries also provide materials for children, often housed in a special section. Child oriented websites with on-line educational games and programs specifically designed for younger library users are becoming increasingly popular. Services may be provided for other groups, such as large print or Braille materials, Books on tape, young adult literature and other materials for teenagers, or materials in other than the national language (in foreign languages).

California and Nevada now offer a new service called Link+. This new program links county libraries across the two states, allowing patrons access to books their library may not have in their collection.[3]

Librarians at most public libraries provide reference and research help to the general public, usually at a reference desk but can often be done by telephone interview. As online discussion and social networking allow for remote access, reference is becoming available virtually through the use of the Internet and e-mail. Depending on the size of the library, there may be more than one desk; at some smaller libraries all transactions may occur at one desk, while large urban public libraries may employ subject-specialist librarians with the ability to staff multiple reference or information desks to answer queries about particular topics at any time during regular operating hours. Often the children's section in a public library has its own reference desk.

Public libraries are also increasingly making use of web 2.0 services, including the use of online social networks by libraries.

Public libraries in some countries pay authors when their books are borrowed from libraries. These are known as Public Lending Right program.

Digital divide

Fort Worth Central Library Learning Commons
Fort Worth Central Library Computer Lab

As more commercial and governmental services are being provided online (e-commerce and e-government), public libraries increasingly provide Internet access for users who otherwise would not be able to connect to these services.

Part of the public library mission has become attempting to help bridge the digital divide. A study conducted in 2006 found that "72.5 percent of library branches report that they are the only provider of free public computer and Internet access in their communities".[4] A 2008 study found that "100 percent of rural, high poverty outlets provide public Internet access, a significant increase from 85.7 percent last year".[5]

The American Library Association (ALA), addresses this role of libraries as part of "access to information"[6] and "equity of access";[7] part of the profession's ethical commitment that "no one should be denied information because he or she cannot afford the cost of a book or periodical, have access to the internet or information in any of its various formats."[8]

In addition to access, many public libraries offer training and support to computer users. Once access has been achieved, there still remains a large gap in people's online abilities and skills. For many communities, the public library is the only agency offering free computer classes and information technology learning. As of 2008, 73.4 percent of public libraries offered information technology training of some form, including information literacy skills and homework assignment help.[5] A significant service provided by public libraries is assisting people with e-government access and use of federal, state and local government information, forms and services.

Internationally, public libraries offer information and communication technology (ICT) services, giving "access to information and knowledge" the "highest priority."[9] While different countries and areas of the world have their own requirements, general services offered include free connection to the Internet, training in using the Internet, and relevant content in appropriate languages. In addition to typical public library financing, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and business fund services that assist public libraries in combating the digital divide.[10]

Origins as a social institution

The culmination of centuries of advances in the printing press, moveable type, paper, ink, publishing, and distribution, combined with an ever growing middle class, increased commercial activity and consumption, new radical ideas, massive population growth and higher literacy rates forged the public library into the form that it is today. Public libraries are not a new idea; Romans made scrolls in dry rooms available to patrons of the baths, and tried with some success to establish libraries within the empire. Naturally, only those few that could afford an education would be able to use the library, where those less than rich or without control of money; women, children and slaves could not. In the middle of the 19th century, the push for truly public libraries, paid for by taxes and run by the state gained force after numerous depressions, droughts, wars and revolutions in Europe, felt mostly by the working class. Matthew Battles states that:

"It was in these years of class conflict and economic terror that the public library movement swept through Britain, as the nation's progressive elite recognized that the light of cultural and intellectual energy was lacking in the lives of commoners".[11]

Libraries had often been started with a donation, an endowment or were bequeathed to various, parishes, churches, schools or towns, and these social and institutional libraries formed the base of many academic and public library collections of today. Andrew Carnegie had the biggest influence in financing libraries in the United States of America, from the east to west coast. From just 1900 to 1917, almost 1,700 libraries were constructed by Carnegie's foundation, insisting that local communities first guarantee tax support of each library built.[12]

Branch library at Bankfield Museum

The establishment of circulating libraries by booksellers and publishers provided a means of gaining profit and creating social centers within the community. The circulating libraries not only provided a place to sell books, but also a place to lend books for a price. These circulating libraries provided a variety of materials including the increasingly popular novels. Although the circulating libraries filled an important role in society, members of the middle and upper classes often looked down upon these libraries that regularly sold material from their collections and provided materials that were less sophisticated. Circulating libraries also charged a subscription fee, however the fees were set to entice their patrons, providing subscriptions on a yearly, quarterly or monthly basis, without expecting the subscribers to purchase a share in the circulating library.[citation needed]

Circulating libraries were not exclusively lending institutions and often provided a place for other forms of commercial activity, which may or may not be related to print. This was necessary because the circulating libraries did not generate enough funds through subscription fees collected from its borrowers. As a commerce venture, it was important to consider the contributing factors such as other goods or services available to the subscribers.[13]

Many claims have been made for the title of "first public library" for various libraries in various countries, with at least some of the confusion arising from differing interpretations of what should be considered a true "public library". Difficulties in establishing what policies were in effect at different times in the history of particular libraries also add to the confusion.

The first libraries open to the public were the collections of Greek and Latin scrolls which were available in the dry sections of the many buildings that made up the huge Roman baths of the Roman empire. However, they were not lending libraries.

The "halls of science" run by different Islamic sects in many cities of North Africa and the Middle East in the 9th century were open to the public. Some of them had written lending policies, but they were very restrictive. Most patrons were expected to consult the books on site.

The later European university libraries were not open to the general public, but accessible by scholars.


United Kingdom

The earliest public library in England was established at the London Guildhall in 1425.[14]

(Preston) Harris Library
Seacroft Library, a small branch library in the Seacroft area of Leeds.

17th century

In the early years of the 17th century, many famous collegiate and town libraries were founded throughout the country. Francis Trigge Chained Library of St. Wulfram's Church, Grantham, Lincolnshire was founded in 1598 by the rector of nearby Welbourne.[15] Norwich City library was established in 1608[16] (six years after Thomas Bodley founded the Bodleian Library, which was open to the "whole republic of the learned"[citation needed] and 145 years before the foundation of the British Museum),[citation needed] and Chetham's Library in Manchester, which claims to be the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, opened in 1653.[17] Other early town libraries of the UK include those of Ipswich (1612), Bristol (founded in 1613 and opened in 1615), and Leicester (1632). Shrewsbury School also opened its library to townsfolk.[18]

In Bristol, an early library that allowed access to the public was that of the Kalendars or Kalendaries, a brotherhood of clergy and laity who were attached to the Church of All-Hallowen or All Saints. Records show that in 1464, provision was made for a library to be erected in the house of the Kalendars, and reference is made to a deed of that date by which it was "appointed that all who wish to enter for the sake of instruction shall have 'free access and recess' at certain times".[citation needed]

Early 18th century

At the turn of the 18th century, libraries were becoming increasingly public and were more frequently lending libraries. The 18th century saw the switch from closed parochial libraries to lending libraries. Before this time, public libraries were parochial in nature and libraries frequently chained their books to desks.[19] Libraries also were not uniformly open to the public. In 1790, The Public Library Act would not be passed for another sixty-seven years.[20] Even though the British Museum existed at this time and contained over 50,000 books, the national library was not open to the public, or even to a majority of the population. Access to the Museum depended on passes, of which there was sometimes a waiting period of three to four weeks. Moreover, the library was not open to browsing. Once a pass to the library had been issued, the reader was taken on a tour of the library. Many readers complained that the tour was much too short.[21] At the turn of the century, there were virtually no public libraries in the sense in which we now understand the term i.e. libraries provided from public funds and freely accessible to all.[22] Only one important library in Great Britain, namely Chetham's Library in Manchester, was fully and freely accessible to the public.[22] However, there had come into being a whole network of library provision on a private or institutional basis. Subscription libraries, both private and commercial, provided the middle and middle to upper class with a variety of books for moderate fees.

The increase in secular literature at this time encouraged the spread of lending libraries, especially the commercial subscription libraries. Commercial subscription libraries began when booksellers began renting out extra copies of books in the mid-18th century. Steven Fischer estimates that in 1790, there were 'about six hundred rental and lending libraries, with a clientele of some fifty thousand.[23] The mid to late 18th century saw a virtual epidemic of feminine reading as novels became more and more popular.[24] Novels, while frowned upon in society, were extremely popular. In England there were many who lamented at the 'villanous profane and obscene books' and the opposition to the circulating library, on moral grounds, persisted well into the 19th century.[25] Still, many establishments must have circulated many times the number of novels as of any other genre.[26] In 1797, Thomas Wilson wrote in The Use of Circulating Libraries: "Consider, that for a successful circulating library, the collection must contain 70% fiction". However, the overall percentage of novels mainly depended on the proprietor of the circulating library. While some circulating libraries were almost completely novels, others had less than 10% of their overall collection in the form of novels.[27] The national average at the turn of the century hovered around novels comprising about 20% of the total collection.[28] Novels varied from other types of books in many ways. They were read primarily for enjoyment instead of for study. They did not provide academic knowledge or spiritual guidance; thus they were read quickly and far fewer times than other books. These were the perfect books for commercial subscription libraries to lend. Since books were read for pure enjoyment rather than for scholarly work, books needed to become both cheaper and smaller. Small duodecimo editions of books were preferred to the large folio editions. Folio editions were read at a desk, while the small duodecimo editions could be easily read like the paperbacks of today. Much like paperbacks of today, many of the novels in circulating libraries were unbound. At this period of time, many people chose to bind their books in leather. Many circulating libraries skipped this process. Circulating libraries were not in the business of preserving books; their owners wanted to lend books as many times as they possibly could. Circulating libraries had ushered in a completely new way of reading.[29] Reading was no longer simply an academic pursuit or an attempt to gain spiritual guidance. Reading became a social activity. Many circulating libraries were attached to the shops of milliners or drapers. They served as much for social gossip and the meeting of friends as coffee shops do today.[30]

Another factor in the growth of subscription libraries was the increasing cost of books. In the last two decades of the century, especially, prices were practically doubled, so that a quarto work cost a guinea, an octavo 10 shillings or 12 shillings, and a duodecimo cost 4 shillings per volume. Price apart, moreover, books were difficult to procure outside London, since local booksellers could not afford to carry large stocks.[31] Commercial libraries, since they were usually associated with booksellers, and also since they had a greater number of patrons, were able to accumulate greater numbers of books. The United Public Library was said to have a collection of some 52,000 volumes-–twice as many as any private subscription library in the country at that period.[32] These libraries, since they functioned as a business, also lent books to non-subscribers on a per-book system.[33]

Private subscription libraries

Private subscription libraries functioned in much the same manner as commercial subscription libraries, though they varied in many important ways. One of the most popular versions of the private subscription library was a gentleman's only library. The gentlemen's subscription libraries, sometimes known as proprietary libraries, were nearly all organized on a common pattern. Membership was restricted to the proprietors or shareholders, and ranged from a dozen or two to between four and five hundred. The entrance fee, i.e. the purchase price of a share, was in early days usually a guinea, but rose sharply as the century advanced, often reaching four or five guineas during the French wars; the annual subscription, during the same period, rose from about six shillings to ten shillings or more. The book-stock was, by modern standards, small (Liverpool, with over 8,000 volumes in 1801, seems to have been the largest), and was accommodated, at the outset, in makeshift premises–-very often over a bookshop, with the bookseller acting as librarian and receiving an honorarium for his pains.[34] The Liverpool Subscription library was a gentlemen only library. In 1798, it was renamed the Athenaeum when it was rebuilt with a newsroom and coffeehouse. It had an entrance fee of one guinea and annual subscription of five shillings.[35] While no records survive of the commercial library lendings, we have the Bristol Library's continuous record of borrowings ( in seventy-seven folio volumes) from 1773 to 1857. An analysis of the registers for the first twelve years provides some fascinating glimpses of middle-class reading habits in a mercantile community at this period. The largest and most popular sections of the library were History, Antiquities, and Geography, with 283 titles and 6,121 borrowings, and Belles Lettres, with 238 titles and 3,313 borrowings. Far below came Theology and Ecclesiastical History, Natural History and Chemistry, Philosophy, Jurisprudence, Miscellanies, Mathematics, etc., and Medicine and Anatomy, all with fewer than 100 titles.[36] The most popular single work was John Hawkesworth's Account of Voyages ... in the Southern Hemisphere (3 vols) which was borrowed on 201 occasions. The records also show that in 1796, membership had risen by 1/3 to 198 subscribers (of whom 5 were women) and the titles increased five-fold to 4,987. This mirrors the increase in reading interests. A patron list from the Bath Municipal Library shows that from 1793 to 1799, the library held a stable 30% of their patrons as female.[37]

It was also uncommon for these libraries to have buildings designated solely as the library building during the 1790s, though in the 19th century, many libraries would begin building elaborate permanent residences. Bristol, Birmingham, and Liverpool were the few libraries with their own building.[38] The accommodations varied from the shelf for a few dozen volumes in the country stationer's or draper's shop, to the expansion to a back room, to the spacious elegant areas of Hookham's or those at the resorts like Scarborough, and four in a row at Margate.[39]

Private subscription libraries held a greater amount of control over both membership and the types of books in the library. There was almost a complete elimination of cheap fiction in the private societies.[40] Subscription libraries prided themselves on respectability. The highest percentage of subscribers were often landed proprietors, gentry, and old professions.[41]

Towards the end of the 18th century and in the first decades of the nineteenth the need for books and general education made itself felt among social classes created by the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.[42] The late 18th century saw a rise in subscription libraries intended for the use of tradesmen. In 1797, there was established at Kendal what was known as the Economical Library, "designed principally for the use and instruction of the working classes."[43] There was also the Artizans' library established at Birmingham in 1799. The entrance fee was 3 shillings. The subscription was 1 shilling 6 pence per quarter. This was a library of general literature. Novels, at first excluded, were afterwards admitted on condition that they did not account for more than one-tenth of the annual income.[34]

Rate-supported libraries

Although by the mid-19th century, England could claim 274 subscription libraries and Scotland, 266, the foundation of the modern public library system in the UK is the Public Libraries Act 1850. Prior to this, the municipalities of Warrington and Salford established libraries in their museums, under the terms of the Museums Act of 1845.Warrington Municipal Library opened in 1848. Salford Museum and Art Gallery first opened in November 1850 as "The Royal Museum & Public Library", as the first unconditionally free public library in England.[44][45] The library in Campfield, Manchester was the first library to operate a free lending library without subscription in 1852.[46] Norwich lays claims to being the first municipality to adopt the Public Libraries Act 1850 (which allowed any municipal borough with a population of 100,000 or more to introduce a halfpenny rate to establish public libraries—although not to buy books),[citation needed] but theirs was the eleventh library to open, in 1857, being the eleventh in the country after Winchester, Manchester, Liverpool, Bolton, Kidderminster, Cambridge, Birkenhead and Sheffield.[citation needed] The Scottish-American philanthropist and businessman, Andrew Carnegie, helped to increase the number of public libraries from the late 19th century.[47]

County libraries are a later development which were made possible by the establishment of County Councils in 1888. They normally have a large central library in a major town with smaller branch libraries in other towns and a mobile library service covering rural areas.

North America


In 1779 Frederick Haldimand, the Governor of Québec City, founded the first subscription library in Canada. Until then, Canada’s libraries were mostly religious institutions, and the general public was not admitted. However, even though “Haldimand's library, like other subscription libraries, appealed primarily to an urban elite”,[48] it was the nation’s first step towards the public library as it is known today. Haldimand’s library later merged with the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec (established in 1824), which displays the original Québec Library collection within its library. This and similar association/social libraries were examples of early prototypes of public libraries. They were public in that membership was allowed regardless of class or religion, and many in Canada eventually evolved into free public libraries.[49]

"Subsequently legislative collections were established in 1791 in Upper and in 1792 in Lower Canada ; and in 1796 the first public library was founded in Montreal. In 1800, libraries were established in King's College, Nova Scotia, and at Niagara, where the first public library in Upper Canada operated for twenty years, in spite of losses during the War of 1812."[50].

In Saint John, New Brunswick in 1883, following the efforts of Colonel James Domville in procuring a collection of materials to replace the many private collections lost in the Great Fire of Saint John, New Brunswick the first free, tax-supported public library was established. Guelph, Ontario and Toronto, Ontario opened public libraries that same year as well.[49] Due to Canada’s size and diversity, the development of the modern Canadian public library was more of a slow evolution than a quick transition as each of the provinces’ specific conditions (geographic, economic, cultural, demographic, etc.) had first to be addressed.[49] The public library therefore took on many forms in Canada’s earlier years; the three most prevalent of these forms were school-district libraries, Mechanics Institutes, and association/social libraries (see reference to Literary and Historical Society of Quebec above).[49]

In 1850, school-district libraries were initiated in Canada. Public servant Joseph Howe started one in Nova Scotia, and politician Egerton Ryerson started one in Ontario. New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island followed suit in 1858 and 1877, respectively. The hope was that both children and adults could benefit from the local school authorities, where financial assistance was provided from colonial legislatures, but the departments of education proved to be too centralizing for locals and this practiced was phased out [51]. Mechanics Institutes also contained libraries that the working class could access inexpensively. The first Canadian library of its kind was established in 1828 in Montréal, Québec. Other communities took up this idea as well – notably those in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Hamilton, Ontario, Toronto, Ontario and Victoria, British Columbia. Like the school-district libraries, these institutes eventually ceased or were replaced by public libraries.[52]

The public library that opened in Toronto, Ontario, was mostly due to a campaign by city alderman John Hallam. James Bain became the first chief librarian, and built a comprehensive collection of Canadian literature and history. The Toronto Public Library was one of the first libraries to choose free status, and it was the largest of them all.[53] Its development flourished after 1900 when Carnegie grants began to aid in building construction and the expansion of collections and services. During this time, open access and children’s departments were introduced, and standard cataloguing and classification systems were adopted.[54] Many of the original branches, funded by a Carnegie grant, still stand and continue to be operated by the Toronto Public Library.[55] Other provinces were affected by Carnegie as well and followed Ontario’s lead in legislating tax support for library services. British Columbia acted in 1891, Manitoba in 1899, Saskatchewan in 1906, and in Alberta, the first legislation officially passed by the legislative assembly was the Library Act. The act was passed March 15, 1907.[56][57] The next provinces to follow were New Brunswick in 1929, Newfoundland in 1935, Prince Edward Island in 1936, Nova Scotia in 1937, Québec in1959, and then the Northwest Territories in 1966.[53]

As they stand today, public libraries in Canada are “governed by provincial statues and are primarily financed by municipal tax revenues and other local income, with provincial grants supplementing local funding. [They are also] the responsibility of a local or regional library board with authority to appoint or dismiss employees, control library property, establish policies, and budget for library operations.”[54] Though the services offered vary from local branch to local branch, public libraries in Canada are not only places to read and borrow books; they are also hubs of community services, such as early reading programs, computer access, and tutoring and literacy help for children and adults.[58][59].

Throughout the years, Canadian libraries have been subject to the political and economic influence of the nation. During World War II, public libraries experienced development setbacks, but expansion resumed in 1945. Then, in the 1960s, Canadian public libraries felt the benefits of the era’s emphasis on education – service expanded, buildings were remodeled or constructed from scratch, and Centennial Grants were provided in order to improve the system. This period of growth ended in due to the inflationary period in the 1970s and the two recessions during the 1980s.[54] However, in the late 1990s this trend reversed and the National Core Library Statistics Program reported in 1999 that public libraries served 28.5 million municipal residents – a total of 93% of the Canadian population. [60] Nevertheless, in 2011 the tides turned for public libraries in Canada once again, specifically in Toronto. The city is now undergoing a heated debate regarding Mayor Rob Ford’s proposed budget cuts for the Toronto Public Library, which is currently one of the most efficient public library systems in all of North America.[61]


In 1646, Don Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, bishop of Puebla and Viceroy of New Spain, expelled the Jesuits from New Spain, and with the confiscated books founded the "Biblioteca Palafoxiana"–the first public library in New Spain. It was in Puebla and open to all readers.

The Palafoxian library exists today and is the only library in the world with the UNESCO Memory of the World certification. It has some of the oldest books in both North and South America.

United States

Bates Hall reading room in the Boston Public Library. Founded in 1848, it has 6.1 million books.[62]
A public library building in Altona, Illinois, a small village in the Midwestern United States.
The public library in Summit, New Jersey, a suburb of New York City.
The former Williams Free Library in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin features an architectural style called Richardsonian Romanesque.

As the United States developed from the 18th century to today, growing more populous and wealthier, factors such as a push for education and desire to share knowledge led to broad public support for free libraries. In addition, money donations by private philanthropists provided the seed capital to get many libraries started. In some instances, collectors donated vast book collections.

William James Sidis in The Tribes and the States claimed the public library, as such, was an American invention.[63] But exactly what constitutes a "free public library" is subject to dispute, and the term "invention" doesn't seem applicable to the many facets of an institution such as a library. Throughout history, knowledge in different forms has been shared in different ways. Writing was recorded on papyrus and stored in scrolls and kept in vast libraries such as the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. In ancient Greece, knowledge was passed by one person reading aloud to a group of scribes from a text; this resulted in sometimes different and error-prone versions of the same text. Monks in the Middle Ages copied manuscripts by hand. After the invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg, books became prevalent, and different institutions such as universities and governments and churches found ways to keep and share them.

There are disputes about which was the first public library in the nation. Early American cities such as Boston and Philadelphia and New York had the first organized collections of books, but which library was truly "public" is subject to dispute. Sidis claims the first public library was Boston's in 1636,[63] although the official Boston Public Library was organized later in 1852.[64] In 1698, Charleston's St. Philip's Church Parsonage had a parish library.

In 1731, Benjamin Franklin and his friends, sometimes called "the Junto", operated the Library Company of Philadelphia partly as a means to settle arguments and partly as a means to advance themselves through sharing information. Franklin's subscription library allowed members to buy "shares" and combined funds were used to buy more books; in return, members could borrow books and use the library. Today, the Library Company continues to exist as a nonprofit, independent research library.

A town in Massachusetts wanted to name itself Franklin in honor of the famous Pennsylvanian, and in return, Benjamin Franklin donated books for use by local residents; while Franklin had been asked to donate a church bell instead, he declined on the basis that "sense" was preferable to "sound."[65] One source considers the Franklin library in Massachusetts to be the first public library in the United States.[65]

Another source claims the library in Darby, Pennsylvania which opened in 1743 is the "oldest continuously operating free public library" in the United States.[66] But other libraries claim to be the first public library, including the Scoville library in Salisbury, Connecticut, which was established in 1803.[67] The library in the New Hampshire town of Peterborough claims to be the first publicly-funded library; it opened in 1833.[68] And a library in Massachusetts in the town of Arlington claims to have had the first free children's library; it opened in 1835.[69]


In the trend from private to public libraries, big city libraries had the largest book collections and the most funding. The forerunner of the New York Public Library in Manhattan was a library established by the Earl of Ballamont around 1700.[70] A newspaper described the call for the "first public librarian" demanding that "he must not be too young, for this would render him liable to be despised by the youth" and "he must be of an even temper" with "great diligence" and "sufficient learning" and "have a genius peculiarly adapted to the calling."[70] In 1849, the library was officially established, and consolidated in 1901. Today, it is considered to be one of the most important public libraries in the nation.[71]

New York governor and book lover Samuel J. Tilden bequeathed millions to build the New York Public Library. He believed Americans should have access to books and a free education if desired. In 2005, the library offered the "NYPL Digital Gallery" which made a collection of 275,000 images viewable over the web; while most of the contents are in the public domain, some images are still subject to copyright rules.[72] In 1902, one account suggested "the village library is growing more and more an indispensable adjunct to American village life."[73]

Around the turn from the 19th to the 20th century, Scottish-American businessman Andrew Carnegie donated over $60 million, which was a vast fortune in 20th century dollars, to build over 2,811 free public library buildings in the United States.[74] They were often known as Carnegie libraries.[74] Carnegie envisioned that libraries would "bring books and information to all people."[75]

Libraries have been started with wills from other benefactors; for example, the Bacon Free Library in South Natick, Massachusetts was founded in 1881 after a benefactor left $15,000 in a will; it has operated as a public library since then.[76]

Once the idea of the public library as an agency worthy of taxation was broadly established during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, librarians through actions of the American Library Association and its division devoted to public libraries, the Public Library Association, sought ways to identify standards and guidelines to ensure quality service.[77]

In 2009, with the economic downturn, many public libraries have budget shortfalls. The library in Darby, Pennsylvania found expenses were greater than revenues from local property taxes, state funds, and investment income; it was on the risk of closing, according to a newspaper report.[66] Many public libraries face budgetary problems; the report noted that "tax dollars that support them are dwindling as property tax revenue declines along with home values and sales taxes fall as consumers spend less. As local funding drops, libraries are turning to their endowments and draining the investments."[66] Many libraries have foundations behind them to support them financially, and rely on the help of well-heeled donors as well as local corporations for funds.[78]


Most public libraries today are supported by tax monies from local and state governments, and some have foundations to support them with additional capital. Libraries lend books and materials freely, but charge fines if materials are returned late or damaged. Libraries often keep many historical documents relevant to their particular town, and serve as a resource for historians in some instances; for example, the Queens Public Library kept letters written by unrecognized Tiffany lamp designer Clara Driscoll, and the letters remained in the library until a curator discovered them.[79]

In 2009, big city libraries have multiple branches and offer numerous services. For example, the Boston Public Library has 26 neighborhood branches and offers free Internet service; it has two restaurants and an online store which features reproductions of photographs and artwork; and it promotes itself with a website.[62] It answers more than one million reference questions annually.[62] The library uses wireless technology software networks to offer more services and keep costs under control.[62] The Boston library offers digitized content, video, a wider range of formats and, as a result, "research documents now have broader accessibility within the community and around the world," and help communities by offering public access computers, mobile Wi-fi access, and free job search tools.[62]

Libraries promote cultural awareness; in Newark, New Jersey, the public library celebrated black history with exhibits and programs.[80] Libraries also partner with schools and community organizations to promote literacy and learning.[75] One account suggested libraries were essential to "economic competitiveness" as well as "neighborhood vitality" and help some people find jobs.[75]

Some library buildings are notable for their particular architectural styles; in the town of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, architects designed the Williams Free Library in the style of Richardsonian Romanesque.



The National Library of France is one of the oldest libraries in the world still in service today as it traces its origin to the royal library founded at the Louvre by King Charles V in 1368, but at the time it was conceived as the private library of the French kings and it opened to the public only in 1692, during the reign of Louis XIV.

Claude Sallier, the philologist and churchman, had an idea that was advanced for its era—to make culture accessible to all. From 1737 to 1750 he made books available to the town of Saulieu, forming France's first public library.

The pioneer of modern public libraries in France was Eugène Morel, a writer and one of the librarians at the Bibliothèque nationale. He put forward his ideas in the 1910 book La Librairie publique.[81][82]


The National Central Library in Florence, the biggest public library in Italy
Entrance to the Biblioteca Malatestiana

The Malatestiana Library (Italian: Biblioteca Malatestiana), also known as the Malatesta Novello Library, is a public library dating from 1452 in Cesena, Emilia-Romagna (Italy). It was the first European civic library,[83] i.e. belonging to the Commune and open to everybody. It was commissioned by the Lord of Cesena, Malatesta Novello. The works were directed by Matteo Nuti of Fano (a scholar of Leon Battista Alberti) and lasted from 1447 to 1452.


Biblioteka Załuskich

The Załuski Library (Polish: Biblioteka Załuskich, Latin: Bibliotheca Zalusciana) was built in Warsaw 1747–1795 by Józef Andrzej Załuski and his brother, Andrzej Stanisław Załuski, both Roman Catholic bishops. The library was open to the public and indeed was the first Polish public library, the biggest in Poland and one of the earliest public libraries in Europe.[84] In 1794, the library was looted on orders from Catherine II of Russia.[citation needed] Much of the material was returned in the period of 1842-1920, but once again the library was decimated during World War II during the period following the Warsaw Uprising. The Załuski Library was succeeded by the creation of the National Library of Poland (Biblioteka Narodowa) in 1928.


Library services in Australia developed along very different paths in the different States, as such it is hard to define the origins of the Public Library system in Australia. In 1809 the Reverend Samuel Marsden advertised in England for donations to help found a 'Lending Library for the general benefit of the inhabitants of New South Wales'. The library would cover 'Divinity and Morals, History, Voyages and Travels, Agriculture in all its branches, Mineralogy and Practical Mechanics'. No Public Library came to fruition from this although some of the books brought to the colony after this call survive in the library of Moore Theological College.

The place of Public Libraries was filled by Mechanics' Institutes, schools of arts, athenaeums and literary institutes; some of these provided free library services to visitors, however lending rights were available only to members who were required to pay a subscription.

In 1856, the Victorian colonial government opened the Melbourne Public Library (now the State Library of Victoria). This was however purely a reference library. In September 1869, the New South Wales government opened as the Free Public Library, Sydney (now the State Library of New South Wales) by purchasing a bankrupt subscription library. In 1896, the Brisbane Public Library was established. The Library's collection, purchased by the Queensland Government from the private collection of Mr Justice Harding.

In 1932, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, funded a survey (The Munn-Pitt Report) into Australian libraries. It found 'wretched little institutes' which were 'cemeteries of old and forgotten books'. There was also criticism of the limited public access, poor staff training, unsatisfactory collections, lack of non-fiction, absence of catalogues and poor levels of service for children. Lending libraries in Sydney (NSW) and Prahran (Victoria) were praised as examples of services which were doing well, but these were seen as exceptions.

In NSW, The Free Library Movement was set up on the back of the Munn-Pitt Report. This collection of (amongst others) concerned citizens, progress associations, Returned Servicemen and trade Unions advocated a system of Public Libraries to serve the needs of all people. The birth of the Movement took place at a public meeting in the Chatswood-Willoughby School of Arts, Victoria Avenue, Chatswood, on Sydney's North Shore, on 26 June 1935. The meeting was opened and chaired by George Brain, President of the Middle Harbour Progress Association. George Brain initiated the resolution which brought the Free Library Movement into existence in NSW as well as the election of provisional office bearers, including himself as Honorary Secretary. This movement was stalled by the declaration of war in 1939.

After the cessation of the war and with George Brain now in NSW parliament as a principle advocate for the Free Library Movement, the passing of Library Acts in NSW and the other states at the end of the war marked the beginning of modern public libraries in Australia.

The old State Library of Queensland,
1899 - 1988

In 1943, the Queensland Parliament passed the Libraries Act, establishing the Library Board of Queensland to manage the operations of the Public Library of Queensland, and coordinate and improve library facilities throughout the State of Queensland.

In November 1943, at the official opening of the new Public Library of New South Wales building, William McKell, the New South Wales Premier, announced that the Library Act would be fully proclaimed from 1 January 1944.

Even after the war, the development of free lending libraries in Australia had been agonizingly slow: it was not until the 1960s that local governments began to establish public libraries in suburban areas.

Currently Australian public libraries: number 1402 public libraries (nearly twice as many bricks and mortar sites than McDonald's restaurants) plus 78 mobile libraries. Australian's generate more than 110 million library visits per year (that is about 9 million visits per month).There are more than 9.9 million library members (or 46% of the population), more than 41.5 million items to use and borrow, plus more than 11,600 computers for public use. It costs $882.3 million to run Australian public libraries but they return at least $2.6 billion-worth of community benefits. All this costs Australians $830 million - just over 10c a day each with a benchmark for best practice funding being 20c per day.

The 2007 Americans for Libraries Council (ALC) report on library valuation stated, ‘A benefit-to-cost ratio of 3:1 or better is common among the library valuation studies ALC reviewed. Because this type of economic analysis is commonly used across industries and businesses, it puts libraries into an evaluative framework that permits comparisons with other types of organizations. When this occurs, public libraries consistently outpace other sectors, such as transportation, health, and education, on the efficient use of tax dollars.’

Funding problems

Most public libraries rely heavily on local government funding. Some proactive librarians[who?] have devised alliances with patron and civic groups to supplement their financial situations. Library "friends" groups, activist boards, and well organized book sales supplement government funding. With the cost of running local government increasing at a rate far above inflation,[citation needed] libraries are compelled to look beyond the tax base of the communities they serve.

In the United States, among other countries, libraries in financially-strapped communities compete financially with other public institutions, such as police, firefighters, and schools.

Many communities are closing down or reducing the capability of their library systems, at the same time balancing their budgets. Jackson County, Oregon (US), closed its entire 15-branch public library system for six months in 2007, reopening with a with a private-public 'partnership' and a reduced schedule.[85] This example of a funding problem followed the failure to pass of a bond measure and cessation of federal funding for counties with dwindling timber revenue, in a state with no sales tax.[86][87] In December 2004, Salinas, California almost became the first city in the United States to completely close down its entire library system. A tax increase passed by the voters in November 2005 allowed the libraries to open, but hours remain limited.[88] The American Library Association says media reports it has compiled in 2004 showed some $162 million in funding cuts to libraries nationwide.[89]

Survey data suggests the public values free public libraries. A Public Agenda survey in 2006 reported 84 percent of the public said maintaining free library services should be a top priority for their local library. Public libraries received higher ratings for effectiveness than other local services such as parks and police. But the survey also found the public was mostly unaware of financial difficulties facing their libraries.[90]

Recently, many US cities, including Philadelphia, New York, Trenton and San Diego, have been facing the issue of making job cuts and service reductions in order to save money. Most of these cities have decided to cut library funding by closing down several branches and cutting hours and staff members in the branches that will remain open. Philadelphia, however, has decided to keep their 54 branches open. In order to save money during this financial crisis, Mayor Michael Nutter has proposed to cut funding for recreational parks and decrease the budget for police and fire services. Nutter has announced that the Philadelphia public library branches will not be affected by the budget cuts at this time.

In various cost-benefit studies libraries continue to provide an exceptional return on the dollar.[91] A 2008 survey discusses comprehensively the prospects for increased funding in the United States, saying in conclusion "There is sufficient, but latent, support for increased library funding among the voting population."[92]

Public libraries, long supported by various government entities, have seen a decline in monetary support for several decades,[citation needed] due to various influences. The American Library Association states that 41% of states saw a decline in state budgets for public library funding in 2009[93]

Cases in point are the libraries in Salinas, California, Rochester, New York,[94] and Buffalo, New York, but there are many other long-standing public libraries now having to find new sources of income to keep them operating.[citation needed]

  • In California, the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 removed the property tax as a source of funding for libraries, school programs, and other public services [95]]. This action provided tax relief for homeowners on one hand, but forced severe budget cuts to the services they enjoyed.
  • The cost of creating, maintaining, and upgrading electronic hardware, networks, and resources has put a strain on many library budgets.[citation needed]
  • The cost of printed matter such as books and magazines has risen over time, while funding has remained static or declined.[citation needed]

See also


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  95. ^ Proposition 13: Some Unintended Consequences Jeffrey I. Chapman

Further reading

  • Barnett, Graham Keith (1987) Histoire des bibliothèques publiques en France de la Révolution à 1939; traduit de l'anglais par Thierry Lefèvre et Yves Sardat. Paris: Promodis (Translation of: The history of public libraries in France from the Revolution to 1939, London: Library Association, 1973)
  • Bobinski, George S. (1969) Carnegie Libraries: their history and impact on American public library development. Chicago: American Library Association ISBN 0-8389-0022-4
  • Garrison, Dee (1979) Apostles of Culture: the public librarian and American society, 1876-1920. New York: Free Press ISBN 0-02-693850-2
  • Jones, Barbara M., "Libraries, Access, and Intellectual Freedom", American Library Association, 1999.
  • Kelly, Thomas (1966) Early Public Libraries: a history of public libraries in Great Britain before 1850. London: Library Association
  • McCook, Kathleen de la Peña (2011), Introduction to Public Librarianship, 2nd ed. New York, Neal-Schuman.
  • Minow, Mary; Lipinski, Tomas A., "The Library's Legal Answer Book", American Library Association, 2003.
  • Stockham, K. A., ed. (1969) British County Libraries: 1919-1969. London: André Deutsch ISBN 0-233-96111-9

External links

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