Free Library Movement

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Although tax-supported free libraries first appeared in the United States in the 1840s, various other institutions existed during the colonial and early national periods that were often dubbed "public libraries," the term designating any book collection not owned by a private individual. Wealthy colonial patrons sometimes established libraries through donations. Thus, in 1638 John Harvard left four hundred volumes in his will to establish the library at the college that would soon bear his name, and in 1656 Robert Keayne left his books and a large sum of money to establish a town library for Boston.

In 1690s Reverend Thomas Bray proposed a library for every Anglican parish in the American colonies. His Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (1701) helped establish more than thirty parish libraries, primarily in the southern colonies, ranging from as few as two to as many as eleven hundred volumes each. These "Bray Libraries," which focused upon theology but also included some history, science, and Latin classics, proved to be forerunners of the ubiquitous church libraries of the early Republic, when ministers or lay leaders often managed small collections of books that could be borrowed by those who attended religious meetings. Similarly, nineteenth-century Sunday schools invariably included libraries of pious didactic reading material. The American Sunday School Union (1824) furnished books to thousands of auxiliary Sunday schools, mostly sets of short religious tracts but also such evangelical favorites as John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678) and Jonathan Edwards's Life of Brainerd (1749).

The social library, essentially a joint stock company, constituted the dominant form of library in America from the 1730s through the 1840s. Social libraries could be proprietary collections, established by learned societies or private associations for the use of members, or subscription libraries, which were available to anyone able to pay the modest required subscription fee. Commonplace in England in the 1720s, social libraries appeared in the American colonies in the 1730s. The most famous, although not the first, colonial subscription library was the Library Company of Philadelphia, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731. Between 1730 and 1780 New England alone boasted at least fifty-one social libraries. Other important collections included the Charleston Library Society (1748) and the New York Society Library (1754). Unlike parish libraries, social libraries offered a broad range of nonsectarian titles, reflecting the diverse personal tastes and needs of the subscribers. Collections typically emphasized history and biography; political commentaries; and literary works by Shakespeare, Defoe, and Pope, as well as eighteenth-century novels such as Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1760) and Tobias Smollett's The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771).

During the early national era, social libraries proliferated at a phenomenal rate, reflecting the democratization of American society and the greater affordability of books. Between 1790 and 1815 New Englanders established over five hundred subscription libraries, with another five hundred appearing before 1850. Social libraries flourished in every region of the young Republic. Many communities had subscription libraries open to all interested residents. In addition, countless private organizations established libraries or reading rooms for members. There were mercantile libraries, lyceum libraries, factory libraries, mechanics' libraries, apprentices' libraries, libraries for young men or women, and libraries associated with reform organizations. As a result, the majority of Americans in the new nation had access to the resources of one or more social library.

Prior to 1850 only a handful of publicly funded and controlled libraries existed for free general use. Most of these were originally subscription collections later acquired by town meetings. In 1827, for example, the social library of Castine, Maine (1801), gave its collection to the town, which thereafter operated it as a free public library. The first town known to establish a publicly funded library was Peterborough, New Hampshire, where in 1833 the town meeting voted to use a part of the state literary fund for the support of schools instead to purchase books for a free town library. Several other New England towns took similar action in the following decade, but the practice seems to have been confined to the Northeast.

The free public library movement really began in 1849, when the New Hampshire legislature authorized towns to levy taxes for the establishment and support of public libraries. Massachusetts enacted similar legislation in 1851, and Maine followed suit in 1854. These early state initiatives did not spread to the rest of the nation until after the Civil War, however, when public libraries would rapidly displace social libraries as the dominant institution for the dissemination of books in the United States.

See alsoBook Trade; Religious Publishing .


Davis, Donald G., Jr. "Bread upon the Waters: The Printed Word in Sunday Schools in 19th Century England and the United States." In Reading for Moral Progress: 19th Century Institutions Promoting Social Change, by Donald G. Davis Jr., David M. Hovde, and John Mark Tucker. Champaign: Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1997.

Johnson, Elmer D. History of Libraries in the Western World. 2nd ed. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1970.

Rohrer, James. "The Connecticut Missionary Society and Book Distribution in the Early Republic." Libraries & Culture 34 (1999): 17–26.

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

Stevens, Edward. "Relationships of Social Library Membership, Wealth, and Literary Culture in Early Ohio." Journal of Library History 16 (1981): 574–594.

Yeatman, Joseph L. "Literary Culture and the Role of Libraries in Democratic America: Baltimore, 1815–1840." Journal of Library History 20 (1985): 345–367.

James R. Rohrer