[On May 23rd, 1895, the project which would become the New York Public Library was launched. So for the 125th anniversary, I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of libraries and library contexts, leading up to a special post on the NYPL!]
On the groundbreaking communal library that helped democratize such spaces.
Libraries seem to have been around about as long as human societies—as illustrated by the prominent and tragic case of the Egyptian Great Library of Alexandria—but it’s fair to say that for their first couple millennia they were significantly elitist in both practice and purpose. That is, it’s not just that libraries tended to be accessible only to those with the privilege necessary to access and use them (and, for much of human history, with the literacy that came along with said privilege)—I would also argue that the purpose of such libraries was precisely to reinforce and extend that privilege, indeed to help ensure that it would be passed down from generation to generation (hence the preponderance of royal and family libraries, and then their creation as part of the university system which likewise functioned as another site of privilege for hundreds of years). None of that means that the texts and knowledge contained in these libraries were any less meaningful, but it’s nonetheless important to recognize the social and hierarchical roles that the spaces themselves generally played.
Those roles didn’t evolve or shift toward our current, far more democratized world of public libraries in any single moment, of course—but as with any historical change, there are at the same time particular events that serve as signposts along the way. At least in American history, one of the earliest and most significant such signposts was the July 1st, 1731 founding of the Library Company of Philadelphia. Ben Franklin had been in the city for nearly a decade by this time, having first moved there from Boston in 1723 (at the age of 17), and had over the prior few years formed with other intellectually and civically inclined young men an informal discussion group (or, as he put it in his Autobiography, a “club for mutual benefit and improvement”) known as the Junto. They needed books for their pursuits, but were each of limited means and purchasing books (generally at the time from London) was prohibitively expensive. So they pooled both their existing books and their book budgets, and in the process (in a very Ben Franklin-like move) drew up formal articles to constitute this shared collection as a library. They even hired America’s first librarian, Philadelphia printer Louis Timothee, to manage that collection and its lending practices.
Those practices didn’t entirely mirror how 21st century public libraries work: as detailed in the Company’s founding articles, “members” (like the founders, but also all those who sought to join subsequently) had to pay a subscription fee (40 shillings upon joining, and 10 shillings a year after that), and then were able to borrow the books for free. But of course the Company had no governmental nor public support, so this fee was necessary both to purchase books and pay the librarian. Moreover, in a piece entitled “A Short Account of the Library” and included in the Company’s 1741 catalog, Franklin notes that the collection was also accessible to non-members; when they borrowed a book they had to deposit money equal to its cost, but their money would be paid back when they returned the book, meaning that the collection was ultimately free for non-members as well. That detail makes clear that membership was intended to be practical and communal but not elitist or exclusionary, and that, like so many of Franklin’s civic-minded ideas for his adopted city, the Library Company of Philadelphia was indeed created as a groundbreaking and inspiring way to democratize books and reading.
Next library tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on the Library Company, or other libraries you’d highlight/celebrate?
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