Public Libraries

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Public Libraries

Of all its public institutions, perhaps America's most enduring are its libraries. U.S. libraries arose out of the democratic beliefs in an informed public, enlightened civic discourse, social and intellectual advancement, and participation in the democratic process. Libraries became part of the U.S. commitment to equal educational opportunity and freedom of thought and expression. Though libraries have existed for almost as long as records have been kept, libraries as public institutions are rather recent and the idea to use public funds for library operation had to overcome considerable opposition. In 1854, the Boston Public Library opened, becoming the first American library to be supported by general taxation. Public libraries became products of the nineteenth century due to the influences of the industrial revolution, urban growth, and the accumulation of private and public wealth.

The traditional structure of the public library is based on service, intellectual freedom, education, democracy, and preservation of the record of civilization. For nearly 150 years, the mission of public libraries has been to collect, organize, preserve, and provide free and equal access to information, knowledge, and entertainment in different formats. By following this mission, libraries foster community, lifelong learning, recreation, literacy, outreach, and personal advancement. The example of the U.S. public library has been recognized and copied in countries throughout the world.

Though public libraries enjoyed an image of well-organized houses of information at the end of the twentieth century, in the mid-nineteenth century public libraries lacked standards of service, adequate acquisition funds, proper cataloging, and professional librarians. To ameliorate the problems in libraries, library leaders resolved at an 1876 librarian conference to make their occupation professional. Soon an accelerated library movement started; librarians founded the American Library Association and began developing methods and systems for organizing information. Among the methodologies created was the Dewey Decimal Classification created by Melvil Dewey in 1876 for cataloging materials, and William Frederick Poole's authoritative indexing for periodicals, which Poole created while studying at Yale University and later published as Poole's Index to Periodical Literature (1887-1908). Dewey went on to establish the first professional school of librarianship at Columbia University in 1887.

While the standardization of organizational methods and professionalization of librarians made public libraries easier to use, private funding provided the boost needed to reach the public they desired to serve. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie gave over $41 million to erect 1,679 public library buildings in 1,412 communities between 1890 and 1919. His funding helped erect libraries in numbers of underserved communities throughout the country. Many of these libraries are still in use today. Carnegie's level of philanthropy was unmatched until 1997 when once again America's richest man chose the public library as the object of his giving. Bill Gates gave two $200 million grants, one for software and one directed at providing digital technology and Internet access to underserved libraries. In addition to these two significant philanthropic gifts, federal programs and grants have assisted the local tax base of library budgets. During the 1930s, Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA) built 350 new libraries and repaired many existing ones. Later, the Library Services Act of 1956 and the Library Services and Construction Act of 1964-65 provided federal dollars for library construction.

The public and private funds used for libraries produced some significant results. In 1876, there were 188 public libraries, a number that had grown to more than 9,000 at the end of the twentieth century. A 1998 Gallup Poll showed that two-thirds of Americans stopped into a public library during the past year, and of these 81 percent checked out one or more books. While public libraries have been criticized as an institution serving the middle class, the library's strength lies in its democracy: equal access to all, free services to people across ethnic, economic, and cultural lines, and a governing board made up of community members.

Libraries and librarianship shifted radically in the latter half of the twentieth century with the development of new information technology. The technology allowed new ways of creating, storing, organizing, and distributing information. Public expectation of the role of libraries also increased, and librarians have responded by taking new initiatives, for example, offering computer access to the library catalog and delivery of full-text items online. While some believe that the virtual world of online information will replace libraries, there is still a need and desire for libraries and librarians. Libraries are the one institution that can fill the gap between the information "haves" and "have nots," for example, by providing the public access to computers and teaching them how to navigate for information.

Placing libraries in cyberspace is just one more form of outreach, a role long identified with library service. From the early horse-drawn book wagons to the modern bookmobile, outreach services have extended from telephone and e-mail reference to services for shut-ins and prisoners. Serving the remote online user is just one more extension of service.

Besides adjusting to rapidly changing technology, libraries are faced with challenges in other areas. The rapid rise of book superstores have created competition for libraries. While the information available on the Internet has also generated competition for libraries, librarians have found it necessary to decide whether or not to put filters that block Internet sites unsuitable for children on computers within libraries. In addition, libraries must find ways to contain technology and telecommunications costs, and protect online intellectual property while assuring fair use. Faced with increased competition and costs, libraries continue to struggle with budgetary matters, competing for limited local tax dollars and regularly supplementing their budgets through funds provided from grant writing. With limited funding, public libraries have found it challenging to keep up with changing demographics, especially in serving multi-ethnic and racial populations.

Despite new challenges, it is clear that communities still want libraries. They want them to serve the disadvantaged, provide free access to collections and online technology, promote literacy, provide books and reference service, make a place for community information and programming, and conduct programs for children. Considering that three out of every five library users are children or young adults, public libraries are a vital resource for parents. Libraries cost little, averaging approximately $21 per capita annually. It has been suggested that supporting a public library outranks any other single investment a community can make to help its people.

—Byron Anderson

Further Reading:

Garrison, Dee. Apostles of Culture: The Public Librarian and American Society, 1876-1920. New York, Free Press, 1979.

Martin, Lowell Arthur. Enrichment: A History of the Public Library in the United States in the Twentieth Century. Lanham, Maryland, Scarecrow Press, 1998.

Nunberg, Geoffrey. "Will Libraries Survive?," American Prospect. Vol. 41, November 1998, 16-23.

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

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Public Libraries

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