By Melissa Chapman
For many of us, our fondest memories revolve around a library card. Libraries are an essential part of how Americans learn and engage with their local communities. Have you ever wondered how public libraries got their start in the United States?
Benjamin Franklin helped bring the library to the American colonies. One of the earliest libraries in America was Ben Franklin’s “The Library Company.” It began in 1731 for his debating society “The Junto” to be able to share and trade books about topics they were discussing.
While public libraries have come to fill a variety of roles, leisure as well as educational, they were originally conceived as part of the nation’s extensive educational movement, and their educational function provided the principal reasoning for public support.
Public libraries began spreading in earnest in American towns and cities after the Civil War. These lending libraries were defined as board-governed and tax-funded. The first totally tax-supported library was in Peterborough, N.H., in 1833.
The first large public library was the Boston Public Library, founded in 1848 and opened in 1854. Founded in 1800, the Library of Congress is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution and the largest library in the world.
New England’s elite me operated the first public libraries. It was not until after 1900 that women worked the operational functions of libraries.
By 1920 there were more than 3,500 public libraries in the U.S. This rapid expansion of the U.S. public library is due to the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie’s funding, over $60 million, had built half of these 3,500 public libraries, earning him the nickname the “Patron Saint of Libraries.” Carnegie funded the building of 2,509 “Carnegie Libraries” worldwide between 1883 and 1929, one of those being Warsaw Community Public Library. The last Carnegie Library grant in the U.S. was issued in 1919.
Public libraries today continue to and keep wide public support. They are one of the best free places in the country that openly cater to the needs of their community. It provides them with a safe space to be in a community of neighbors and offering a wide array of services.
Today’s public libraries offer something for everyone, at all ages and levels of ability. They have provided all members of the public with free access to knowledge, information and opportunity. Public libraries have leveled the playing field for all.