Skip to main content
Select Source:

American Library Association

American Library Association

50 East Huron Street
Chicago, Illinois 60611
Telephone: (312) 944-6780
Toll Free: (800) 545-2433
Fax: (312) 440-9374
Web site:

Nonprofit Organization
Members: 64,000
Revenues: $47 million (2006)
NAIC: 511130 Book Publishers

With more than 64,000 members, the Chicago-based American Library Association (ALA) is the worlds largest library association and the oldest. The ALA has chapters in all 50 states, its operations divided among 11 divisions to serve the needs of public libraries, school libraries, and college and research libraries; library trustees and advocates; information technology personnel; and other constituents. The ALA also hosts some 15 round tables, covering such subjects as Intellectual Freedom; Library History; Library Research; Social Responsibilities; Ethnic and Multicultural Information Exchange; and Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender issues. The ALAs reach is also extended through a network of about 25 affiliated organizations. The association is governed by an elected council, the directives of which are carried out by a 13-member executive board.


As the public library movement began to take shape in the United States in the 1800s, a call came from a number of quarters for leading librarians to come together at a convention where they could exchange ideas and seek ways to advance the cause of public libraries. In September 1853 such a convention was held in New York City, and among the topics discussed was a proposal for a card catalogue that relied on punched slips of paper strung together. While the attendees made it clear that they intended to make the gathering an annual event, they were unable to form a permanent organization to organize future conventions.

More than 20 years passed before that dream was realized. In 1876 many groups converged on Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to meet during the United States centennial celebration. Librarians took advantage of this idea to finally schedule another conference. While no one person can lay claim to the idea, among the leading librarians who at least share the credit was Melvil Dewey, who in that same year of 1876 published the Dewey Decimal Classification system that would make him famous. For several years Dewey had wanted to establish a national organization for librarians and launch a library periodical, and now he took the lead in seeing that the conference actually took place. The three-day event was held in Philadelphia in August 1876, and out of it emerged a new national organization for librarians called the American Library Association, as well as an official publication of the group, American Library Journal.

The ALAs first president was Justin Winsor, an able administrator who was superintendent of the Boston Public Library at the time of his election but who soon left to become librarian of Harvard University. He, Dewey as secretary, and the associations vice-presidents drew up the ALAs constitution, which was published in Library Journal in March 1877. The creation of an executive board of directors, originally composed of five members, was one of the provisions, charged with making decisions for the ALA in between annual conferences. In reality, little happened outside of the conferences during these early days of the ALA.

Winsors tenure came to an end in 1885, and henceforth ALA presidents were elected at the annual conference and served only until the next gathering. Dewey took his turn in 1890 but poor health forced his resignation before the 1891 San Francisco conferences. There, K. A. Linderfelt, head librarian of the Milwaukee Public Library, was elected to succeed Dewey, but his term came to an even quicker end under even less auspicious circumstances. He was arrested for embezzlement, the stealing of public funds, and he was replaced as ALA president by William I. Fletcher. In ALA records, Linderfelt is not to be found because the associations secretary was instructed to record Fletcher as serving the entire term that would have been Linderfelts.


State library organizations also began to crop up during this period. In 1890 the New York Library Association became the first, and four more state associations followed that year, and another four a year later. In the meantime, the ALA also began to branch out in other ways. In 1889 the College and Library Section was formed, providing academic library administrators a forum to discuss matters that concerned them.

For many years the ALA had no true headquarters, essentially located wherever the organizations secretary resided. For the first 15 years that meant the desk of Dewey, wherever he happened to make his office in Boston. By the end of the 19th century, however, there was a clamoring for a permanent headquarters located at a major center of library work, although there was some disagreement over the purpose of the headquarters. Dewey saw it as a great central clearinghouse for new methods and ideas in the library field and a place to provide training, while Arthur E. Bostwick of the New York Public Library hoped the headquarters would become more of a social club. As for the location, New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., were all leading candidates, but in the end Boston was chosen because office space could be leased at a less expensive rate. Hence, in September 1906 the ALA moved into four rooms at 34 Newbury Street in Boston. Little more than a year later the lease was terminated and the association was once again looking for a permanent home. The offer of Pittsburghs Carnegie Library to provide free quarters was tentatively accepted, but because of some internal dissension the ALA decided instead to accept free space in Chicago at the John Crerar Library, which was under construction. Because of building delays, however, the ALA ultimately moved into the Chicago Public Library in September 1909.

The United States entry into World War I in 1916 afforded the ALA with an opportunity to move beyond a purely professional association to become something of a service organization. During the war, the ALAs Library War Fund financed libraries at the 32 military training facilities spread across the United States. The ALA also spent some of the money it raised on books for servicemen and launched a national donation campaign that netted 3.5 million books.

This experience during the war prompted the ALA to look for more ways to have an impact on the lives of Americans, leading to the 1919 proposal of what became known as the Enlarged Program. It was an ambitious slate of ideas, which included providing books and magazines to Coast Guard units and the American Merchant Marines, bringing library services to poorer sections of the country, and spending money to promote the library idea with the general public. While the goals may have been commendable, ALA leadership misread the organizations public profile and ability to raise funds outside of the time of war. Hence, a $2 million fund-raising campaign garnered just $80,000, and in late 1919 it was terminated, thus putting an end to the noble experiment.


The mission of the American Library Association is to provide leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.

In response to this resounding failure, the ALA phased out the programs launched during the war years and sought to increase its membership and broaden its base of support and influence in the United States. An Activities Committee was also formed, in response to critics, to review the ALAs procedures and practices, resulting in some fruitful changes to the organization. The onset of the Great Depression in late 1929 hindered the ALA, as libraries suffered severe budget cuts, leading to the layoff of librarians and the inability of many ALA members to pay their dues. After several years, however, conditions began to improve, the government restored budgets and librarians went back to work, and the ALAs membership began to grow.

Aside from economic problems, the ALA in the 1930s also had to face challenges to intellectual freedom as another world war loomed. Some reading material was deemed totalitarian propaganda by some people, who called for it to be removed from library shelves. Some novels, such as John Steinbecks Grapes of Wrath, were considered by many to be subversive because of their socialist politics, while other works of fiction, such as Kathleen Winsors Forever Amber, were deemed immoral because of their sexual content. To combat the censorship initiatives, the ALA passed the Library Bill of Rights in 1939, which was followed by the formation of the Intellectual Freedom Committee. To ensure free access to information, however, the ALA possessed no power beyond the publicity it could bring to bear on the people or government entities engaging in censorship.

During World War II, the ALA resumed its campaigns to raise funds and collect books for military personnel. It also faced a new challenge; after years of dealing with the problem of unemployment among librarians, it now had to contend with a major shortage of librarians. Not only were many called to military service, but others took higher-paying jobs outside of the profession, as the wartime economy boomed and private-sector salaries grew because so much of the workforce was now in the service of the country. The final year of the war, 1945, saw the ALA finally move into its own headquarters after decades of depending on free space. The organization was able to acquire the McCormick mansion in Chicago for its permanent new home.

In the decade that followed World War II, the ALA struggled to find agreement on what direction to follow. It also had to contend with strained relationships with its divisions, in particular the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL), which wanted greater autonomy. As a result, the ALA reorganized as a more decentralized operation. In 1952 the ACRL recognized its first local chapter, located in Philadelphia. During this period the ALA was able to successfully lobby for federal aid to libraries, resulting in the passage of the Library Services Act. It was also able to obtain funding from charitable organizations to become involved overseas in building libraries and establishing library schools.


In the late 1950s and early 1960s, while the ALA was still refining its working relationship with the divisions, the association considered another relocation of its headquarters. A plan to move to Washington, D.C., failed because of an inability to raise the necessary funds, and in the end the ALA decided to construct a new headquarters around its old building. The five-story L-shaped structure opened in stages and was finally completed in 1963. It was a time of optimism for the organization and the library movement it served because the federal government made new monies available. Later in the 1960s, however, as the war in Vietnam drained dollars from the common purse, budgets were cut.


The ALA is founded in Philadelphia.
Headquarters are moved to offices of the Chicago Public Library.
The ALA passes the Library Bill of Rights in response to censorship efforts.
The association moves into its first permanent home in Chicago.
New headquarters building opens in Chicago.
Banned Books Week is launched.
The ALA opposes the USA Patriot Act.

In the meantime, the ALA, like the country in general, was forced to take a stand on the civil rights movement sweeping the country, and decide whether it would allow libraries that discriminated against people on the basis of race, religion, or personal belief to be part of the ALA. In 1964 the association expressed an intention to employ every means at its disposal to ensure everyone had freedom of access to libraries. It was very much a paper policy, however, and discrimination continued in Americas libraries. The matter ultimately came to a head at the 1966 conference held in Detroit. The agenda listed but one item: Shall library institutional members in the ALA be open only to libraries that are integrated? While the meetings members unanimously adopted a recommendation to the council that the ALAs constitution be amended to eliminate discriminating libraries from the ranks of the association, the council at the midwinter meeting that year voted it down. Most of the council supported the spirit of the recommendation but were opposed to the mechanism proposed.

Finding agreement was always difficult for the ALA, which underwent regular reorganizations but remained in many respects a bureaucracy that had difficulty in changing or making decisions. It faced something of a revolution in the late 1960s when a group of members called for the formation of a Round Table on the Social Responsibilities of Libraries to give members a forum to express their concerns on such issues as race, violence, war and peace, inequality of justice and opportunity. Citing urgency, an attempt was made to skirt the approval process of the Committee on Organization, which was responsible for reviewing these kinds of requests, and its chairman accused the round tables organizers of making a brazen power play, one which if successful would establish a precedent for other pressure groups. Nearly two years would pass before the new round table would gain official status within the ALA, although it had already been allowed to meet and organize. The ALA also received criticism from within, as evidenced by the scornful remarks delivered by outgoing treasurer Ralph Blasingame, who maintained that the ALA was an old organization, run by old people, and unable to chart a course for the future. He advocated yet another reorganization, one that would place ten-year term limits on certain staff officers and allow for greater participation from younger ALA members.

As disturbing as Blasingames comments may have been, they did little to change the ALA, by this time approaching its first century in operation. Author Dennis Thomison offered a trenchant assessment of the association at this point in his history of the ALA through 1972. Highlighting a number of seeming contradictions, he wrote that the ALA was often resistant to change, sometimes utterly unpredictable, frequently right in the vanguard of American thought, and always determined in its principles. It has been, on occasion, an organization that has seen nothing wrong with being outspokenly liberal one moment and terribly conservative the next. He added, The membership is so diverse that ALA cannot possibly answer the call of every member. ALA will surely always be behind the demands of its outspoken dissenters, and just as surely, far in advance of its conservative constituency.

On the whole, the ALA became more of a liberal-leaning organization in the years following Blasingames scathing analysis. It had to face the challenge of new technologies that had a profound impact on libraries. In the 1940s libraries began to incorporate film strips into their holdings, making libraries more than just repositories of books. Now in the late 1970s and early 1980s, new media became available: videotape, videodisc, and audiocassettes. In 1980 at a meeting held in New York City, the ALA sponsored a colloquium to ponder an information agenda for the 1980s and provide libraries with some guidance on what material, and how much, they should now offer to their users. In the 1990s this debate would be renewed with the emergence of the Internet as a popular medium, as libraries began to buy computers and make them available to users to browse the Internet. In the early 2000s the ALA took on book publishers over the right of libraries to make electronic books available free online.

Some old battles for the ALA were also reengaged in the final decades of the 20th century. In 1982 the ALA had launched the annual observance of Banned Books Week and each year had no difficulty in finding books that some group wanted removed from the shelves of a library. On the one hand, the days when Catcher in the Rye was considered racy and kept behind the counter may have passed, but there were still sexually-explicit books that some groups opposed, and on the other hand Mark Twains Huckleberry Finn was regularly denounced for its racism, despite critical acclaim. The Internet also opened up new areas of censorship for the ALA to consider. Many libraries installed software filters on library computers to prevent users from viewing material that might be deemed offensive to others. The ALA opposed filters, maintaining that they compromised a librarys obligation to the free flow of ideas. In 1999 the organization also came under fire from conservative radio talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who opposed the ALAs intellectual freedom policy and launched a public campaign to force the ALA to remove a link on its web site to an explicit sex-education site for teenagers.

The ALA also found itself often at odds with the government. In the late 1980s it opposed a plan to turn over the organization of certain databases, such as census material, to private companies, which the ALA worried might make the material too expensive for libraries to purchase or simply focus on the data that had the most commercial value. In the early 2000s the ALA was especially upset over the USA Patriot Act, passed after the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, being opposed specifically to the provisions that allowed the Federal Bureau of Investigation access to library records to determine what kind of materials a person may have checked out. A resolution passed by the ALA called the act a present danger to the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users.

In its 130th year of its existence, the ALA continued to find ways to make itself relevant. In 2006 it published its first-ever The State of Americas Libraries report, which noted that 89 percent of Americans surveyed were pleased with their public libraries, and most agreed they were underfunded. Libraries also continued to face numerous attempts to censor library materials. Hence, the ALA still had a significant role to play in serving as an advocate for libraries and the publics right to intellectual freedom.

Ed Dinger


American Association of School Librarians; Association for Library Collections & Technical Services; Association for Library Service to Children; Association for Library Trustees and Advocates; Association of College and Research Libraries; Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies; Library Administration and Management Association; Library and Information Technology Association; Public Library Association; Reference and User Services Association; Young Adult Library Services Association.


Egan, Timothy, Sensing the Eyes of Big Brother, and Pushing Back, New York Times, August 8, 2004.

Ferrell, Tom, Libraries Face Up to the New Technological Imperatives, New York Times, June 29, 1980, p. A20.

Harmon, Amy, Library Suit Becomes Key Test of Freedom to Use the Internet, New York Times, March 2, 1998.

Janofsky, Michael, What Would Dewey Do? Libraries Grapple with Internet, New York Times, December 2, 2002.

Kirkpatrick, David D., Publishers and Libraries Square Off over Free Online Access to Books, New York Times, June 17, 2002.

Murphy, Dean E., Some Librarians Use Shredder to Show Opposition to New F.B.I. Powers, New York Times, April 7, 2003.

Thomison, Dennis, A History of the American Library Association: 18761972, Chicago: American Library Association, 1978, 301 p.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"American Library Association." International Directory of Company Histories. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"American Library Association." International Directory of Company Histories. . (December 16, 2017).

"American Library Association." International Directory of Company Histories. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from



LIBRARIES. The period 14501789 witnessed an unprecedented expansion in the publication, circulation, and readership of books. Such dramatic changes in patterns of literacy and book use are amply reflected in the history of libraries in the period.


By the late thirteenth century the scriptoria and companion book collections of the early medieval period had been eclipsed in importance by the rise of college libraries, particularly in Paris and Oxford. The most famous of these was the Sorbonne library in Paris, founded in 1287. Its 1290 catalogue lists over 1,000 manuscripts, and the library would expand to more than 2,500 volumes by the end of the fifteenth century. Equally important were the libraries of the studia (study houses) of the monastic orders. Over time, a body of regulations governing college and conventual libraries evolved. Many of these libraries employed sophisticated cataloguing and classification systems. While there was no single model of classification, most conformed to a recognizably Scholastic pattern, descending from theology, through philosophy and the other two university faculties of law and medicine, to logic, rhetoric, and grammar, with appropriate subdivisions where warranted by the quantity of books.

The expansion of private libraries in the late medieval period was closely related to the institutional libraries of the university colleges and study houses. Members of the three professionschurchmen, lawyers, and physiciansresponded to changing patterns of literacy and professionalization that demanded increased textual expertise with ever-expanding collections of professional textual materials.


This milieu fostered the bibliophilia of the first major humanist book collector, Francesco Petrarch (13041374). Petrarch's library was not only large for the age (some two hundred volumes), but unusual in that it contained not the canonical texts and core manuals of the professions, but the works of classical authors and the church fathers. In early-fourteenth-century Florence, Coluccio Salutati (13311406) and Niccolò de'Niccoli (c. 13461437), key figures of Florentine humanism, built up collections of around eight hundred volumes. Niccoli was one of the first systematic collectors of older manuscripts, which he knew to be more accurate than later copies. Both before and after the fall of Constantinople, Greek émigrés such as Manuel Chrysoloras (c. 13531415) in Florence introduced many important Greek texts previously unknown to Western libraries. The library of Cardinal Bessarion (14031472) was the most important such collection for the transmission of Greek texts to the West. Bessarion's library contained over 1,000 volumes and was bequeathed to the Venetian republic after his death. From Venice, they were copied and recopied to furnish Western libraries with Greek manuscript texts. Important institutional Renaissance libraries were established in Florence, with the 1444 San Marco library, and in Rome, with the Vatican library first of Nicholas V (c. 1450) and, subsequently and more permanently, Sixtus IV (14711484).

The religious conflicts of the sixteenth century had a major impact upon libraries, both positive and negative, in Protestant and Catholic Europe. Most dramatic was the dissolution of the monasteries in England in the 1540s and the dispersal and loss of thousands of medieval manuscripts. The college libraries of Oxford and Cambridge suffered similar, if less systematic, loss. In Germany the holdings of many monastic libraries were absorbed by existing town and court libraries. In the last half of the century the French Wars of Religion resulted in the destruction of many important ecclesiastical libraries. It is no coincidence that this period witnessed the first postmedieval renaissance of systematic bibliography, with the efforts of Conrad Gessner (Bibliotheca Universalis, 1545) in the Swiss confederation, John Bale (Illustrium Maioris Britanniæ Scriptorum, 1548) in England, and Flacius Illyricus (Catalogus Testium Veritatis Basle, 1556) in Germany.

The upheaval of the first half of the sixteenth century was countered by a considerable consolidation of library collections in the second half. This period witnessed the consolidation and foundation of important collections across Catholic Europe: the Escorial in Spain (1575), the Imperial Library in Vienna (reorganized in 1576), the new Vatican library of Sixtus V (1589), the Hofbibliothek in Munich (1558), and the Ambrosiana in Milan (1609). This chain of Catholic libraries presented a wall of orthodoxy across Europe, a self-conscious effort at intellectual containment of Protestant gains. In Protestant Europe a number of important collections emerged: the ducal library at Wolfenbüttel (1572) and the Bodleian Library at Oxford (1602) were the most important. These libraries marked a watershed in establishing permanent institutional locations for the medieval manuscript heritage and in amassing unprecedented quantities of printed books. The Ambrosiana, for example, amassed a collection of some 15,000 manuscripts and 30,000 printed books in the decades after its foundation. By 1666, the ducal library at Wolfenbüttel held over 55,000 printed books. Most had established, if highly restricted, hours of opening. Access was equally restricted to members of established circles of scholars. Private collections also grew in size, frequently providing the nucleus of both local and far-flung networks of learning. Such was the case with the libraries of Claude Dupuy (15451594) in Paris and Gian Vincenzo Pinelli (15351601) in Padua. Pinelli, whose library and collections housed the young Galileo while he was composing his Padua lectures, could boast of over 6,000 printed books and 700 manuscripts, making it one of the largest private libraries of the period.


This period saw continued consolidation and expansion of major collections and witnessed a growth in the political importance of libraries. Quasi-public libraries such as those of the de Thou family in Paris or Sir Robert Cotton (15711631) in London constituted loci of parliamentary intellectual activity and housed documents of great legal and historical importance. Their libraries were mirrored in the collections of legal and political élites across Europe. Conversely, Cardinal Mazarin's (16021661) formidable library in Paris (1643) became a powerful emblem of ministerial and royal authority: it was dispersedforbidden to be sold intact to a single buyerduring the Fronde of 1651. The reorganization of the French Royal Library (1661) under Jean-Baptiste Colbert (16191683) transformed that library into a formidable political symbol of the French monarchy and, through Colbert's patronage, into a unique locus of learning in Europe.

As a result of the new cultural importance of libraries in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and in response to the growing pressures of the print revolution, a recognizable discipline of library organization and classification developed. Gabriel Naudé (16001653) in his 1627 Advis pour dresser une bibliothèque (Advice for establishing a library) sought to establish universal principles for library organization and cataloguing sensitive to both the enormous growth of print and the intellectual needs of members of the republic of letters. The real home of library science during the Enlightenment would be Germany, where the subject of library organization was taught in the universities and where both professorial and university libraries were organized on a loose arrangement much indebted to both Naudé and Francis Bacon (15611626). This development reached its culmination in 1734, with the library at the University of Göttingen, the first modern university "research" library.

The major development of the eighteenth century was the expansion of vernacular book collections. These libraries favored romances and novels in addition to the traditional vernacular genres of religion and history. The new genres provided the backbone of the lending libraries and popular reading rooms, important new features on the European library scene in the eighteenth century. More books were increasingly available to more people, and levels of personal ownership of books increased across the social spectrum. Many of the older institutional libraries rushed to embrace the new ideal of the public library (though many had long functioned as quasi-public institutions): for example, the French Royal Library in 1720 and the Imperial Library in Vienna in 1726 both opened their doors as public libraries. In 1753, Britain finally had an institution to match its continental rivals with the establishment of the British Library. But it was the nationalization of the French Royal Library at the Revolution and its confiscation of former monastic holdings that would set the standard for the large national continental libraries of the nineteenth century.

See also Dissemination of Knowledge ; Education ; Humanists and Humanism ; Literacy and Reading ; Printing and Publishing ; Universities .


Dadson, Trevor J. Libros, lectores y lecturas. Estudios sobre bibliotecas particulares españolas del Siglo de Oro. Madrid, 1998.

Fabian, Bernhard, ed. Handbuch der historischen Buchbestände in Deutschland. Hildesheim, 1992.

Fehrenbach, R. J., and E. S. Leedham-Green, eds. Private Libraries in Renaissance England: A Collection and Catalogue of Tudor and Early Stuart Book-lists. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies. 5 vols. Binghamton, N.Y., 19921998.

Grendler, Marcella. "A Greek Collection in Padua: The Library of Gian Vincenzo Pinelli (15351601)." Renaissance Quarterly 33 (1980): 386416.

A History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland. 4 vols. Cambridge, U.K., forthcoming.

Hobson, Anthony. Great Libraries. London, 1970. A magnificently illustrated survey, with bibliography, of major Renaissance collections.

Nelles, Paul. "The Library as an Instrument of Discovery: Gabriel Naudé and the Uses of History." In History and the Disciplines: The Reclassification of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe, ed. D. R. Kelley, pp. 4157. Rochester, N.Y., 1997.

Nolhac, Pierre de. La bibliothèque de Fulvio Orsini. Paris, 1887. Reprint Geneva, 1976.

Robathan, Dorothy M. "Libraries of the Italian Renaissance." In The Medieval Library, edited by James Westfall Thompson, pp. 509588. New York, 1957.

Serrai, Alfredo. Storia della bibliografia. 11 vols. Rome, 19882001.

Sherman, William H. John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance. Amherst, Mass., 1995.

Stam, David H., ed. International Dictionary of Library Histories. 2 vols. Chicago, 2001.

Ullman, Berthold L., and Philip A. Stadter. The Public Library of Renaissance Florence: Niccolò Niccoli, Cosimo de' Medici and the Library of San Marco. Padua, 1972.

Vernet, André, ed. Histoire des bibliothèques françaises. 4 vols. Paris, 19881992.

Paul Nelles

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Libraries." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Libraries." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . (December 16, 2017).

"Libraries." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from



LIBRARIES. What distinguishes libraries in the United States from all others in the world is their emphasis on access. While libraries in many countries collect and preserve those books and other materials that document national heritage, libraries in the United Sates have focused on building collections to meet their patrons' needs. Consequently, American libraries are unrivaled in their ease of use. But the history of the library cannot be told in a single story because there are three distinct types in the United States: academic, special or corporate, and public. Academic libraries are subsets of educational institutions, and their histories reflect the principles and philosophies of their parent organizations. Similarly, the history of special libraries, established by individuals with a particular interest in certain topics, or of corporate libraries, created to support researchers in an organization, parallel the histories of their founders and funders. Only the public library has a history of its own.

University libraries were the first to appear in America (beginning with the Harvard College Library in 1638). The availability of books for the young men who attended universities was an indication that the new nation valued education and knowledge. The presence of books was valued much more than services, but books were scarce, and more than a few British travelers wrote back to their fellow countrymen that the collections found in the United States were not worthy of the name of a library. Since the librarians were most often faculty members who had the assignment of looking after the books, university libraries were poorly funded and unevenly administered.

The history of libraries in America is essentially the story of public libraries. Public libraries grew in countless communities as a response to a growing democracy, but it was not until the nineteenth century that libraries became ubiquitous.

The public library that developed in the United States in the late nineteenth century was a prime example of the democratic institutions created to assimilate and integrate the diverse ethnic and cultural groups that had come to constitute America. By 1900 there were approximately two thousand public libraries in the United States. Most were either social libraries, supported by individual philanthropists with a special interest in the community, or subscription libraries, supported by fees paid by those patrons who wished to use the circulating collections.

It is no coincidence that the public library came onto the scene at the same time that large corporations came into existence. Mercantile libraries, especially in the East, were founded by and run for the benefit of businesspeople, and they became a source of great pride for many cities during the nineteenth century. Most library historians who have studied these institutions argue that the libraries served, primarily, an educational purpose. The self-improvement campaign that was evident in the middle class during much of the nineteenth century was exemplified by the belief that no knowledge should be foreign to the merchant, and therefore that the reading of books, newspapers, and magazines touching on any subject was professionally useful. These mercantile libraries also became the locus of informational lectures on a wide range of topics.

The Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, established in 1886, exemplified the type of library that was becoming common in many cities. Successful individual businessmen—such as Enoch Pratt, who called the library a symbol of democracy—established libraries in an effort to repay the community. The wealthy and well educated men who served on Pratt's board of trustees proclaimed that his new library was to be an institution "where neither wealth nor poverty, high nor low position in society nor any other distinction entitles the individual to special privileges before the law." Even if the rules were applied universally, the library was more a symbol of personal success than an open institution for information. The library in Baltimore was built as a closed-stacks institution, which could be used only with permission. Letters of reference had to be submitted to the head librarian.

The modern public library—the type that emphasizes access to information—emerged first in the guise of the Boston Public Library, established in 1852 as the first tax-supported municipal library. Even though it is popular among library historians to refer to the "public library movement," states and communities were reluctant to tax themselves to provide free library services. In 1849 New Hampshire was the first state to pass enabling legislation that allowed communities to levy taxes for public libraries. It took another fifty years for thirty-seven additional states to pass similar legislation.

Andrew Carnegie's philanthropy did more than anything else to accelerate the development of public libraries in towns across the country. In 1881 Carnegie made the first of a series of gifts that would link his name permanently to public library buildings. Motivations for Carnegie's philanthropy are sharply debated. Some argue that Carnegie's own experience as a self-made man led him to the recognition that access to books can lead to education, and, ultimately, wealth. Other historians have argued that Carnegie used library development as a form of social control, seeing in the library a way to instill standards of behavior and an appreciation of culture. Whatever the reason, between 1881 and 1919 Andrew Carnegie made grants for the construction of 1,679 public libraries in the United States.

His particular form of philanthropy had enormous influence: Carnegie gave money to municipal governments to build library buildings. The town or city had to promise to buy books and provide library staff. The latter requirement resulted in the growth of library education programs in universities and the creation of a professional organization—the American Library Association—that would campaign for universal library service in the United States. The topic most forcefully debated by the new organization was the nature of library collections. Many of the early professionals who worked in public libraries recognized that most readers had the greatest interest in books and magazines that entertained. Yet, the leaders of the profession argued that the role of the librarian was to encourage the reading of "good" books. The founders of the Boston Public Library, Edward Everett and George Ticknor, held opposing views on the type of collections the public library should contain. Ticknor believed that collecting and circulating the "pleasant literature of the day" would result in the cultivation of higher tastes in reading among the library patrons. Everett, who ultimately lost the battle, argued that the library should be a reference (noncirculating) library for scholarly purposes. The compromise reached at the Boston Public Library—a compromise between the "best books" and "the best that people will read"—was copied by libraries across the country throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

From the mid-nineteenth century until 1956, public libraries were guided by state legislation and professional principles. Reference services and children's services grew as more funding was applied to public libraries. In 1956 the federal government began to support the expansion of library services into rural communities. Federal funds were made available for professional training, construction of new library facilities, and research into library problems. By the 1970s, states began to think in terms of developing uniform library services that were administered by the main state library. Since then, technology-based networks have allowed states to offer more library services at less cost.

In the opening years of the twenty-first century, one aspect of the public library that is assuming more importance is its role as a place where members of a community can come together. Computer-based services are offered to all socioeconomic groups, but as home computers become more popular, the public library increasingly serves as a social safety net by ensuring access to information for those from lower economic levels, seeing this access as a right of all citizens. At the same time, many of the largest university libraries are deeply engaged in developing digital, or virtual, libraries, making resources for research and scholarship available through the Internet. To modern-day librarians, building collections of material that are available to anyone who has access to a computer is a natural extension of earlier services. It is uncertain how the availability of Web-based research materials will affect the concept of the library, but it does cause one to reflect on the extent to which the history of the library, until now, has been a history of buildings. As libraries move into a new era, there will be greater emphasis on information services available to scholars, researchers, and the general public.


Carpenter, Kenneth E. Readers and Libraries: Toward a History of Libraries and Culture in America. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1996.

Shera, Jesse H. Foundations of the Public Library: The Origins of the Public Library Movement in New England, 1629–1855. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949.

Van Slyck, Abigail. Free to All: Carnegie Libraries and American Culture, 1890–1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Deanna B.Marcum

See alsoHarvard University .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Libraries." Dictionary of American History. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Libraries." Dictionary of American History. . (December 16, 2017).

"Libraries." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from




Public Libraries. Community tax-supported public libraries that were free and open to everyone did not take root until the nineteenth century. Most public libraries were actually book collections or private libraries open to the public. For example, the foundations of the Boston Public Library date from 1673 with the donation of Robert Keaynes private collection of books, which was administrated by the town of Boston. In the mid eighteenth century probably no more than about ten or twelve community-owned library collections such as this were founded. However, many other kinds of libraries were founded, some private or quasi-private, some by membership only and those accessible to people who could pay a rental fee.

Demand for Books. Throughout the colonial era educated people collected books and possessed their own libraries. Most individual libraries contained less than a dozen books, but collections ranged in the thousands, such as John Adamss library of five thousand volumes

and William Byrd IIs twenty-three cases of three thousand books. Most libraries contained Bibles, almanacs, and devotional literature, but during the eighteenth century reading interests expanded to include books on science, politics, gardening, medicine, law, surveying, agriculture, conduct and civility, grammar, textbooks, drama, poetry, history, and education. Colonial booksellers stocked imprints from Britain as well as from colonial presses, which by 1762 numbered about 40. Between 1689 and 1783 colonial presses had printed, by one estimation, 100,000 titles. The proliferation of books and other printed items and the increase in literacy in the eighteenth century meant a surge of new booksellers in the colonies. By 1750, 121 booksellers had opened shops in five American cities: Boston, Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, and Newport. Between 1761 and 1776 the number had increased to 151.


Proprietor Location Founded Annual Fee Number of Vols.Longevity (in months)
Source: David Kaser, A Book for a Sixpence: The Circulating Library in America (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Beta Phi Mu, 1980).
William RindAnnapolis1763£11150+12
George WoodCharleston1763 1,00048
Garrat NoelNew York1763$53,000?12?
John MeinBoston1765£1-81,200 
Lewis NicolaPhiladelphia1767$2-3400-1,00051+
Thomas BradfordPhiladelphia1769  45+
Samuel GiffordCharleston1772£1  
William AikmanAnnapolis1773£111,200426
Joseph RathellBaltimore1773$4800+0
Samuel LoudonNew York1774£11,000-2,00032+
Robert BellPhiladelphia1774 2,00048+

College Libraries. College libraries built their early collections primarily through donations from philanthropists abroad and from colonial men of letters. Harvards library began with the bequest of John Harvards four hundred books. The College of William and Mary received donations from abroad and from prominent Virginia gentlemen, the largest of which was given by Gov. Francis Nicholson. In the eighteenth century, college libraries grew rapidly, though most suffered huge losses by fire or through the ravages of war. The largest of the libraries was at Harvard. From its modest beginnings in 1638 it grew to about 3,500 books in the eighteenth century before it was destroyed by fire in 1764. But two years later the library had grown from purchases and donations to 4,350 volumes, which doubled by 1783. William and Mary, Yale, and the College of New Jersey each had between 2,000 and 3,000 books before the Revolution, but many of these were destroyed during the war. Kings College and the College of Philadelphia had small libraries, but students at these colleges had access to larger libraries nearby.

Parish Libraries. Thomas Bray, an Anglican minister and commissary to Marylands Anglican parishes, is credited with planning the first parochial lending library. His purpose was to give poorer clergy the opportunity to educate themselves with theological, philosophical, and scientific books housed in nearby parish libraries. The first library, with 1,095 volumes, was created in 1696 in Annapolis, Maryland. With top priority given to the establishment of parish libraries by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (S.P.C.K.), more than thirty were founded in Boston, Charleston, New York, Philadelphia, and Maryland in the following three years. However, they were created mainly for clergy, and the public could use them only on a limited basis.

Subscription Libraries. Two other kinds of libraries, the subscription and circulating libraries, were more accessible to the public. The subscription libraries, also known as social libraries, were formed as clubs or voluntary associations by individuals who contributed to a general fund that was supported by annual contributions or subscriptions for the purpose of buying and maintaining books. In 1731 Benjamin Franklin founded the first of its kind, called the Library Company of Philadelphia, with a plan to have subscribers pay an initial fee of forty shillings to buy books and an additional annual fee often shillings to maintain the collection and add new books. Rules determined hours of access, fines for overdue books, limits on the number of books that could be checked out, fees for damaged books, and other collection-related concerns. Sometimes educational activities such as lecture series were offered by these libraries. By 1775 there were about seventy subscription libraries in the colonies.

Circulating Libraries. The most publically accessible library was the circulating library, a popular institution at this time in England, where there were about fifty in existence before 1762, when the first known American circulating library was organized in Annapolis, Maryland. These lending libraries were attached to booksellers shops or printing companies, and were places where readers rented books for a fee and for a certain period of time. Though the Annapolis library failed after a few months, eleven more successful replicas followed in urban areas such as Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Charleston before the Revolution. The number of volumes in each ranged from 150 to 3,000. They catered to men and women in trying to fill the increasing demand for literature, history, biography, and travel books. However, since both the subscription and circulating libraries cost users money, they were not available to everyone and therefore not actually public. In addition the circulating libraries were located only in cities that had booksellers and printers. At least one colony, Virginia, had neither a circulating nor a subscription library.


David Kaser, A Book for a Sixpence: The Circulating Library in America (Pittsburgh, Pa: Beta Phi Mu, 1980);

Malcolm Knowles, A History of the Adult Education Movement in the United States (Huntington, N.Y.: R. E. Krieger, 1977);

Huey B. Long, Continuing Education of Adults in Colonial America (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Publications in Continuing Education, 1976);

Jesse H. Shera, Foundations of the Public Library: The Origins of the Public Library Movement in New England, 1629-1855 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949);

Harold W. Stubblefield and Patrick Keane, Adult Education in the American Experience: From the Colonial Period to the Present (San Francisco, Cal.: Jossey-Bass, 1994).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Libraries." American Eras. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Libraries." American Eras. . (December 16, 2017).

"Libraries." American Eras. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from




The Lyceum Movement. Although the nations public libraries first opened their doors during the 1850s, their origins go back at least two decades earlier, to the Lyceum Movement founded by Connecticut educator Josiah Holbrook. Inspired in part by the democratic impulse of the American Revolution, lyceums were intended as a federation of adult educational organizations whose members would hold weekly meetings, for reading, conversation, illustrating the sciences, or other exercises designed for mutual benefit. By 1835 there were over three thousand lyceums spread through out the country and gradually began to accumulate book collections and build up archives filled with documents of local historical interest. In many areas the lyceums functioned as informal schools, compensating for the failure of traditional institutions to respond to popular educational needs. Women, in particular, became avid participants in the affairs of local lyceums, and the institution played an important role in breaking down educational barriers against them. Factory girls from Lowell, Massachusetts, were said to have saved their pennies to attend lyceum courses, but for the most part it was the middle classes that made up the audiences for lyceum lectures and courses. Public lectures typically featured discussions on literature or science, but toward midcentury the lyceums became an important venue for representatives of the various reform currents: womans rights advocates, abolitionists, and education reformers were frequent visitors to the lyceum podium.

The Free Public Library. Early attempts at establishing public libraries often consisted of no more than a call by individuals to open the lyceum collections to the general public. Expressing an egalitarian optimism typical of American intellectuals before midcentury, Francis Wayland urged members of the Providence Athenaeum in 1838 to make available to the average citizen of Providence, Rhode Island, all the reading which shall be necessary to prepare him for any situation for which his cultural endowments have rendered him capable. In the view of reformers, libraries would serve as the arsenals of a democratic culture by developing an intelligent and informed citizenry. Significantly, they viewed the public library campaign as an important extension of the common-schools movement. Bostons tireless advocate George Ticknor considered the public library the crowning glory of the public schools system, recommending the issue of special library tickets for school children in order to create the reading habit early in life. By 1850 this impulse had moved considerably beyond the call to open private collections. In Boston, Ticknor and former governor Edward Everett, both allies of Horace Mann, had managed to win public funding for a city library, and their achievement was reinforced by similar successes elsewhere. New Hampshire legislators voted in 1849 to permit public funding for libraries open to the free use of every inhabitant of the town or city for the general diffusion of intelligence among all classes of the community, making it the first state in the Union to do so. The state of Massachusetts followed with similar legislation in 1851, to be joined by Maine (1854), Rhode Island (1867), and Connecticut (1869). By the mid 1870s most major towns in New England had established public libraries, and their popularity was noted by U.S. commissioner of education William T. Harris, who recognized the library as one of the most efficient auxiliaries of the public schools. Melvil Dewey, for whom the Dewey decimal system would later be named, founded the American Library Association in 1876.

Struggle. Outside of New England, the success of the public library campaign was more modest. The largest collections in the United States remained in private hands. The John Jacob Astor Library in New York City, with 100,000 volumes the largest collection in the United States at the time, opened its doors in 1854 but only to a limited, private readership; within twenty years it had added another 135,000 volumes to its collection. Harvard University, with 72,000 books, was closed to the public as well. The Library of Congress at Washington, by comparison, contained a modest 50,000 volumes during

this period, and the largest of the public libraries, at Philadelphia, just 60,000. In this situation, social welfare agencies very often attempted to fill the void. In New York, for example, after efforts to establish a free public library there failed in 1858, the YWCA established its own library and attempted to make its collection available to working women. One of its librarians described the atmosphere by the librarians desk in the evening, when the women and girls from the shops and factories are free. Andthe jostling crowd presses in, embarrassed and awkward, half awed by the very beauty and refinement of the place, and abashed at the sight of so many books. Though it would not be until 1895 that New York would establish a free public library of its own (based, in part, on the Astor collection), by 1877 the notion that Americans from every background should have ready access to quality reading materials, a corollary of the common-schools ideal, had become fixed in the popular mind as one of the distinguishing features of life in America.


Sidney H. Ditzion, Arsenals of a Democratic Culture: A Social History of the American Public Library Movement in New England and the Middle States from 1850 to 1900 (Chicago: American Library Association, 1947);

David B. Tyack, George Ticknor and the Boston Brahmins (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Libraries." American Eras. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Libraries." American Eras. . (December 16, 2017).

"Libraries." American Eras. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from


libraries. Before printing, collections of MS volumes were held in some monasteries and cathedrals, notably at Canterbury, Wearmouth, and Jarrow: the Benedictine rule prescribed reading as one of the duties of a monk. They were largely commentaries on the church fathers and philosophical and legal works and in the later Middle Ages were usually kept in the cloister. Though occasionally loaned to scholars, they could not be generally available. With the foundation of Oxford and Cambridge colleges from the 13th cent. onwards, more collections were started. Thomas Cobham, bishop of Worcester, built a small library at Oxford c.1320; Archbishop Chichele gave 49 books to his new college of All Souls in 1438, and Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, a great patron of learning, made handsome bequests to the university in the same period. The libraries were small and the books often kept in chests or chained to avoid the need for a librarian: chained libraries are extant at Merton College, Oxford, and in Hereford cathedral. In addition, a few noblemen or ecclesiastics had their own collections—Richard de Bury, bishop of Durham (d. 1345), and John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester (d. 1470).

The invention of printing in the 15th cent. allowed the development of modern libraries. A great many MS volumes and books were dispersed at the dissolution of the monasteries (c.1540) and, though Archbishop Parker, Sir Robert Cotton, and Sir Thomas Bodley recovered some, many perished. The Duke Humphrey library at Oxford was devoid of books and given over to other uses. But the number of scholarly libraries was increasing. Cambridge University library began in a modest fashion, the books kept in chests, but in the 1470s Archbishop Rotherham endowed a new library building in Old Schools. Edinburgh began collecting a library in the 1580s before the university was established. The Bodleian at Oxford, incorporating the Duke Humphrey, dates from about 1610, and the library of Trinity College, Dublin, is from the same period. The libraries of the Inns of Court date from the mid-16th cent. to the 17th cent. Over the next 200 years, some of the college libraries were rebuilt on a magnificent scale. Wren's library at Trinity College, Cambridge, by the banks of the Cam, was built between 1676 and 1695: Queen's at Oxford between 1692 and 1695. Hawksmoor's great Codrington library at All Souls was started in 1715 but not completed until 1751; the Radcliffe library by James Gibbs opened in 1749; Christ Church's library took even longer to finish than the Codrington, being begun in 1717 and completed in 1772. The first move towards a national library was the foundation of the British Museum in 1753, housing the Harleian, Cotton, and Sloane collections and augmented by gifts from George II and George III: Smirke's great classical building was opened in 1847. Playfair's library for the University of Edinburgh, another splendid piece of cool classicism, was finished in 1837. The Faculty of Advocates library in Edinburgh, dating from the 1680s, had acted as a Scottish national library and was entitled to the privilege of one copy of every book published, under the Copyright Act of 1709. It was not officially transformed into the National Library of Scotland until 1925, and opened its new building in 1956.

These were libraries for scholars and a high proportion of books were still in Latin. There was little provision for ordinary people unless their parish church had a small collection, though many homes had a few prized books. Grantham had a library as early as 1598 and Humphry Chetham left money in 1653 for libraries in Manchester and Bolton. In the course of the 18th cent. the situation began to change. The literacy rate started to rise. Circulating libraries were established in a number of towns, catering for the new novel reader—often a woman. By the end of the century, literary and philosophical societies and mechanics' institutes were being formed, most of which had libraries attached. Subscription libraries appeared in the 19th cent., the best known being perhaps the London library, founded by Thomas Carlyle in 1841, exasperated at the service in the British Museum. In 1849 a parliamentary select committee on library provision deplored the low standard, and a cautious Act of 1850 allowed towns of more than 10,000 people to spend a halfpenny rate (raised in 1855 to a penny) on library provisions (though not on books). Winchester, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Leeds had all established libraries by 1870. Municipal undertakings were assisted by donations in the late 19th cent. from Andrew Carnegie, Passmore Edwards, John Rylands, and others. In 1919 a further Act lifted the rate restriction and a county library service, to cope with the rural areas, was begun. The proliferation of universities and colleges from 1860 onwards saw dozens of new libraries established. By the late 20th cent. libraries were focal points in most towns, with particular emphasis on children's sections, and a diversification of activities into lectures, evening classes, and music and video provision.

J. A. Cannon

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"libraries." The Oxford Companion to British History. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"libraries." The Oxford Companion to British History. . (December 16, 2017).

"libraries." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from

American Library Association

American Library Association, founded 1876, organization whose purpose is to increase the usefulness of books through the improvement and extension of library services. As the major professional association for librarians and libraries, it seeks to maintain high standards for all branches of library service through functions ranging from the accreditation of library training schools to the recognition of outstanding books. The association was involved in early attempts to expand library services to all people. It supported public access to library shelves, tax-supported libraries, books made available for home loan, and research libraries sponsored by the government and major educational institutions. It fosters joint programs with the Association for Educational Communications and Technology. It has a long-standing policy of opposition to censorship, the banning of books, and violations of the user's right to confidentiality in the selection of reading materials. The organization, based in Chicago, had 58,777 members in 1999.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"American Library Association." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"American Library Association." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 16, 2017).

"American Library Association." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from