Public library

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Librarians and patrons at a library in the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County system, a large urban public library
Interior of a spacious room with lots of desks with lights and people studying
Panoramic view of the research room at the New York Public Library
Biblioteca Municipal de Guayaquil

A public library is a library that is accessible by the general public and is generally funded from public sources, such as taxes. It is operated by librarians and library paraprofessionals, who are also civil servants. In the United States there are a fair number of public libraries that are 501(c)(3) organizations, not tax-supported and whose employees are not civil servants.

There are five fundamental characteristics shared by public libraries. The first is that they are generally supported by taxes (usually local, though any level of government can and may contribute); they are governed by a board to serve the public interest; they are open to all and every community member can access the collection; they are entirely voluntary in that no one is ever forced to use the services provided; and public libraries provide basic services without charge.[1]

Public libraries exist in many countries across the world and are often considered an essential part of having an educated and literate population. Public libraries are distinct from research libraries, school libraries, and other special libraries in that their mandate is to serve the general public's information needs (rather than the needs of a particular school, institution, or research population). Public libraries also provide free services such as preschool story times to encourage early literacy, quiet study and work areas for students and professionals, or book clubs to encourage appreciation of literature in adults. Public libraries typically allow users to take books and other materials off the premises temporarily; they also have non-circulating reference collections and provide computer and Internet access to patrons.


Book borrowing and lending[edit]

Branch library at Bankfield Museum in Halifax, England

The main task of public libraries is to provide the public with access to books and periodicals. The American Library Association (ALA), addresses this role of libraries as part of "access to information"[2] and "equity of access";[3] part of the profession's ethical commitment that "no one should be denied information because he or she cannot afford the cost of a book or periodical, have access to the internet or information in any of its various formats."[4]

Libraries typically offer access to thousands, tens of thousands, or even millions of books, the majority of which are available for borrowing by anyone with the appropriate library card. A library's selection of books is called its collection, and usually includes a range of popular fiction, classics, nonfiction and reference works, books of public interest or under public discussion, and subscriptions to popular newspapers and magazines. Most libraries offer quiet space for reading, known as reading rooms. Borrowers may also take books home, as long as they return them at a certain time and in good condition. If a borrowed book is returned late, the library may charge a small library fine, though some libraries have eliminated fines in recent years. About two-thirds of libraries now provide access to e-books and digital or digitized periodicals as well as printed books.[5]

Public libraries also provide books and other materials for children. These items are often housed in a special section known as a children's library and attended to by a specialized children's librarian. Child oriented websites with on-line educational games and programs specifically designed for younger library users are becoming increasingly popular. Services may be provided for other groups, such as large print or Braille materials, Books on tape, young adult literature and other materials for teenagers, or materials in other than the national language (in foreign languages).

Libraries also lend books to each other, a practice known as interlibrary loan. Interlibrary loan allows libraries to provide patrons access to the collections of other libraries, especially rare, infrequently used, specialized and/or out-of-print books.

The selection, purchase and cataloging of books for a collection; the care, repair, and weeding of books; the organization of books in the library; readers' advisory; and the management of membership, borrowing and lending are typical tasks for a public librarian, an information professional with graduate-level education or experience in library and information science.[6]

Computer and internet access[edit]

Fort Worth Central Library Computer Lab

Part of the Public Library mission has become attempting to help bridge the digital divide. As more books, information resources, and government services are being provided online (see e-commerce and e-government), public libraries increasingly provide access to the Internet and public computers for users who otherwise would not be able to connect to these services. Almost all public libraries now house a computer lab. Internationally, public libraries offer information and communication technology (ICT) services, giving "access to information and knowledge" the "highest priority."[7] While different countries and areas of the world have their own requirements, general services offered include free connection to the Internet, training in using the Internet, and relevant content in appropriate languages. In addition to typical public library financing, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and business fund services that assist public libraries in combating the digital divide.[8]

In addition to access, many public libraries offer training and support to computer users. Once access has been achieved, there remains a large gap in people's online abilities and skills. For many communities, the public library is the only agency offering free computer classes and information technology learning. As of 2012, 91% of libraries offer free wireless Internet to their patrons; 76% offer e-books for borrowing; and 90% offer formal or informal technology training.[5] A significant service provided by public libraries is assisting people with e-government access and use of federal, state and local government information, forms and services.

In 2006 73% percent of library branches reported that they are the only local provider of free public computer and Internet access.[9] A 2008 study found that "100 percent of rural, high poverty outlets provide public Internet access.[10] Access to computers and the Internet is now nearly as important to library patrons as access to books.[11]

Classroom and meeting space[edit]

Public libraries have a long history of functioning as community centers or public spaces for reading, study and formal and informal public meetings. In 1898, Andrew Carnegie, a prominent library philanthropist, built a library in Homestead, Pennsylvania, where his main steel mills were located. Besides a book collection, it included a bowling alley, an indoor swimming pool, basketball courts and other athletic facilities, a music hall, and numerous meeting rooms for local organizations. It sponsored highly successful semi-pro football and baseball teams.[12] Even before the development of the modern public library, subscription libraries were often used as clubs or gathering places; they served as much for social gossip and the meeting of friends as coffee shops do today.[13] Throughout history, public libraries were touted as alternatives to dance halls or gentleman's clubs, and frequently built, organized and supported because of their equalizing and civilizing influence.

Today, in-person and on-line programs for reader development, language learning, homework help, free lectures and cultural performances, and other community service programs are common offerings. The library storytime, in which books are read aloud to children and infants, is a cultural touchstone. Most public libraries offer frequent storytimes, often daily or even several times a day for different age groups. One of the most popular programs offered in public libraries is "summer reading" for children, families, and adults. Summer reading usually includes a list of books to read during summer holidays, as well as performances, book discussions or other celebrations of reading, culture and the humanities.

Libraries may also offer free or cheap meeting space for community organizations and educational and entrepreneurial activity. The addition of makerspaces in libraries, beginning with the Fayetteville Free Library in 2011, offers the potential for new roles for public spaces and public libraries.[14] Attendance at library programs increased by 22% between 2004 and 2008.[15]

Research assistance[edit]

Reading area in a Singapore public library

Librarians at most public libraries provide reference and research help to the general public. This can include assisting students in finding reliable sources for papers and presentations; helping the public find answers to questions or evidence in a debate; or providing resources related to a specific event or topic. Reference assistance is usually provided through a reference interview which is usually conducted at a public reference desk but may also be conducted by telephone or online. Reference librarians may also help patrons develop an appropriate bibliography or works cited page for an academic paper. Depending on the size of the library, there may be multiple reference desks that deal with different topics. Large public, academic or research libraries may employ librarians that are experts in specific topics or subjects. Often the children's section in a public library has its own reference desk. On the other hand, at a smaller library, circulation and reference may occur at the same desk.

The Internet has had a significant effect on the availability and delivery of reference services. Many reference works, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, have moved entirely online, and the way people access and use these works has changed dramatically in recent decades. The rise of search engines and crowd-sourced resources such as Wikipedia have transformed the reference environment. In addition to the traditional reference interview, reference librarians have an increasing role in providing access to digitized reference works (including the selection and purchase of databases not available to the general public) and ensuring that references are reliable and presented in an academically acceptable manner. Librarians also have a role in teaching information literacy, so that patrons can find, understand and use information and finding aids like search engines, databases and library catalogs.

Public libraries may answer millions of reference questions every year. For example, the Boston Public Library answers more than one million reference questions annually.[16]

Reference collections[edit]

In addition to their circulating collection, public libraries usually offer a collection of reference books, such encyclopedias, dictionaries, phone books and unique or expensive academic works. These books may not be available for borrowing, except under special circumstances. Reference books that are frequently used, such as phone books, may be housed in a special section called "ready reference."

Some libraries also keep historical documents relevant to their particular town, and serve as a resource for historians in some instances. For example, the Queens Public Library kept letters written by unrecognized Tiffany lamp designer Clara Driscoll, and the letters remained in the library until a curator discovered them.[17] Some libraries may also serve as archives or government depositories, preserving historic newspapers, property records or government documents. Collections of unique or historical works are sometimes referred to as special collections; except in rare cases, these items are reference items, and patrons must use them inside the library under the supervision or guidance of a librarian. Local libraries' special collections may be of particular interest to people researching their family history. Libraries that are focused on collecting works related to particular families are genealogical libraries and may be housed in the same building as a public library.

Many libraries—especially large, urban libraries—have large collections of photographs, digital images, rare and fragile books, artifacts and manuscripts available for public viewing and use. Digitization and digital preservation of these works is an ongoing effort, usually funded by grants or philanthropy. In 2005, the New York Public Library offered the "NYPL Digital Gallery" which made a collection of 275,000 images viewable over the web; while most of the contents are in the public domain, some images are still subject to copyright rules.[18] Limited funding, copyright restrictions, a lack of expertise or poor provenance are barriers to the large-scale digitization of libraries' special collections.

Other services[edit]

A burro library

Depending on a community's desires and needs, public libraries may offer many other resources and services to the public. In addition to print books and periodicals, most public libraries today have a wide array of other media including audiobooks, e-books, CDs, cassettes, videotapes, and DVDs. Collections of books and academic research related to the local town or region are common, along with collections of works by local authors. Libraries' storage space and lending systems may be used to lend a wide range of materials, including works of art, cake pans, seeds, tools and musical instruments.[19] Similar to museums and other cultural institutions, libraries may also host exhibits or exhibitions.

As more government services move online, libraries and librarians have a role in providing access to online forms and assistance with filling them out.[20] For example, in 2013, American public libraries were promoted as a way for people to access online health insurance marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act.[21]

In rural areas, the local public library may have a bookmobile service, consisting of one or more buses or pack animals (such as burros) furnished as small public libraries, Internet access points or computer labs and serving the countryside according to a regular schedule. In communities that are extremely isolated or that have poor digital infrastructure, libraries may provide the only access to online education, telework or telemedicine. Libraries also partner with schools and community organizations to promote literacy and learning.[22]

Libraries promote cultural awareness; in Newark, New Jersey, the public library celebrated black history with exhibits and programs.[23] One account suggested libraries were essential to "economic competitiveness" as well as "neighborhood vitality" and help some people find jobs.[22]

Libraries have in important role during emergencies and disasters, where they may be used as shelters, provide space to charge phones and access the Internet, and serve as locations for the distribution of aid, especially financial aid, which requires access to computers and the Internet.[24] FEMA recognizes libraries as providing essential community service during times of disaster.[25] Libraries have also had in increasingly important economic role during the recession, providing job search assistance, computer skills training and resume help to patrons.[26]


The establishment or development of a public library involves creating a legal authorization and governing structure, building a collection of books and media and securing reliable funding sources, especially government sources.[27] Most public libraries are small, serving a population of under 25,000, and are (or were) established in response to specific local needs.[28] In A Library Primer, John Cotton Dana's 1899 work on the establishment and management of libraries in the United States, Dana wrote:

Each community has different needs, and begins its library under different conditions. Consider then, whether you need most a library devoted chiefly to the work of helping the schools, or one to be used mainly for reference, or one that shall run largely to periodicals and be not much more than a reading room, or one particularly attractive to girls and women, or one that shall not be much more than a cheerful resting-place, attractive enough to draw man and boy from street corner and saloon. Decide this question early, that all effort may be concentrated to one end, and that your young institution may suit the community in which it is to grow, and from which it is to gain its strength.[29]

After being established and funded through a resolution, public referendum or similar legal process, the library is usually managed by a board of directors, library council or other local authority. A librarian is designated as the library director or library manager. In small municipalities, city or county government may serve as the library board and there may be only one librarian involved in the management and direction of the library. Library staff who are not involved in management are known in the United States and some other English-speaking countries as "library paraprofessionals" or "library support staff."[30] They may or may not have formal education in library and information science. Support staff have important roles in library collection development, cataloging, technical support, and the process of preparing books for borrowing. All of these tasks may be referred to as technical services, whether or not they involve information technology.[31] While the library's governing board has ultimate authority to establish policy, many other organizations may participate in library management or library fundraising, including civic and voluntary associations, women's clubs, Friends of the Library groups, and groups established to advise the library on the purchase and retention of books.

State and national governments may also have a role in the establishment and organization of public libraries. Many governments operate their own large libraries for public and legislative use (e.g., state libraries, the Library of Congress, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, etc.). These governments can also influence local libraries by reserving formal recognition or funding for libraries that meet specific requirements. Finally, associations of library and information professionals, such as the American Library Association (ALA) and the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) help establish norms and standard procedures, secure funding, advocate at the state or national level and certify library schools or information schools.


Public libraries are funded through a wide combination of sources, the most significant which is usually local or municipal funding.[32][33] The citizens who use a local library support it via the city or county government, or through a special-purpose district, which is a local government body that has independent leadership and may levy its own taxes.[34] Local funding may be supplemented by other government funding. For example, on the United States, the state and federal governments provide supplementary funding for public libraries through state aid programs, the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) and E-Rate. State and local governments may also offer cities and counties large grants for library construction or renovation. Private philanthropy has also had a significant role in the expansion and transformation of library services, and, like other educational institutions, some libraries may be partially funded by an endowment. Some proactive librarians have devised alliances with patron and civic groups to supplement their financial situations. Library "friends" groups, activist boards, and well organized book sales also supplement government funding.

Public funding has always been an important part of the definition of a public library. However, with local governments facing financial pressures due to the Great Recession, some libraries have explored ways supplement public funding. Cafes, bakeries, bookstores, gift shops and similar commercial endeavors are common features of new and urban libraries. For example, the Boston Public Library has two restaurants and an online store which features reproductions of photographs and artwork.[16] Pressure on funding has also led to closer partnerships between libraries, and between libraries and for-profit ventures, in order to sustain the library as a public space while providing business opportunities to the community.[35] While still fairly uncommon, public-private partnerships and "mixed-use" or "dual-use" libraries, which provide services to the public and one or more student populations, are occasionally explored as alternatives. Jackson County, Oregon (US), closed its entire 15-branch public library system for six months in 2007, reopening with under a public-private partnership and a reduced schedule.[36] Small fees, such as library fines or printing fees, may also offset the cost of providing library services, though fines and fees do not usually have a significant role in library funding.

Although usage of public libraries has increased significantly in recent decades, libraries are under intense financial pressure and scrutiny.[37][38] The American Library Association says media reports it has compiled in 2004 showed some $162 million in funding cuts to libraries nationwide.[39] In 2009, 40% of states reported a decline in state aid for libraries.[40] In 2012, Great Britain lost over 200 libraries to budget cuts, part of a general trend of fiscal austerity in Europe.[41] However, there are signs of stabilization in library funding.[42] As of 2012, funding for construction and renovation of new libraries remains steady.[43] Cities' plans to close public libraries are frequently cancelled or scaled back. In 2012, voters in 13 U.S. states approved new funding for library construction or operations.[44] And in the UK, the new Library of Birmingham, opened in 2013, is the largest cultural space in Europe.[45]

Survey data suggests the public values free public libraries. A Public Agenda survey in 2006 reported 84% of the public said maintaining free library services should be a top priority for their local library. Public libraries received higher ratings for effectiveness than other local services such as parks and police. But the survey also found the public was mostly unaware of financial difficulties facing their libraries.[46] In various cost-benefit studies libraries continue to provide an exceptional return on the dollar.[47] A 2008 survey discusses comprehensively the prospects for increased funding in the United States, saying in conclusion "There is sufficient, but latent, support for increased library funding among the voting population."[48] A 2013 Pew Research Center survey reported that 90% of Americans ages 16 and older said that the closing of their local public library would have an impact on their community, with 63% saying it would have a “major” impact.[49]


A public library in Maadi, Egypt

The culmination of centuries of advances in the printing press, moveable type, paper, ink, publishing, and distribution, combined with an ever growing information-oriented middle class, increased commercial activity and consumption, new radical ideas, massive population growth and higher literacy rates forged the public library into the form that it is today.

Public access to books is not new. Romans made scrolls in dry rooms available to patrons of the baths, and tried with some success to establish libraries within the empire. In the middle of the 19th century, the push for truly public libraries, paid for by taxes and run by the state gained force after numerous depressions, droughts, wars and revolutions in Europe, felt mostly by the working class. Matthew Battles states that:

"It was in these years of class conflict and economic terror that the public library movement swept through Britain, as the nation's progressive elite recognized that the light of cultural and intellectual energy was lacking in the lives of commoners".[50]

Libraries had often been started with a donation, an endowment or were bequeathed to various, parishes, churches, schools or towns, and these social and institutional libraries formed the base of many academic and public library collections of today. Andrew Carnegie had the biggest influence in financing libraries in the United States of America, from the east to west coast. From just 1900 to 1917, almost 1,700 libraries were constructed by Carnegie's foundation, insisting that local communities first guarantee tax support of each library built.[51]

Entrance to the National Library in Tehran, Iran

The establishment of circulating libraries by booksellers and publishers provided a means of gaining profit and creating social centers within the community. The circulating libraries not only provided a place to sell books, but also a place to lend books for a price. These circulating libraries provided a variety of materials including the increasingly popular novels. Although the circulating libraries filled an important role in society, members of the middle and upper classes often looked down upon these libraries that regularly sold material from their collections and provided materials that were less sophisticated. Circulating libraries also charged a subscription fee, however the fees were set to entice their patrons, providing subscriptions on a yearly, quarterly or monthly basis, without expecting the subscribers to purchase a share in the circulating library.[citation needed]

A public library in Garowe, Somalia

Circulating libraries were not exclusively lending institutions and often provided a place for other forms of commercial activity, which may or may not be related to print. This was necessary because the circulating libraries did not generate enough funds through subscription fees collected from its borrowers. As a commerce venture, it was important to consider the contributing factors such as other goods or services available to the subscribers.[52]

The first libraries open to the public were the collections of Greek and Latin scrolls which were available in the dry sections of the many buildings that made up the huge Roman baths of the Roman empire. However, they were not lending libraries.

The "halls of science" run by different Islamic sects in many cities of North Africa and the Middle East in the 9th century were open to the public. Some of them had written lending policies, but they were very restrictive. Most patrons were expected to consult the books on site.

The later European university libraries were not open to the general public, but accessible by scholars.

British Empire[edit]

The earliest public library in England was the London Guildhall which was established in 1425.[53]

Seacroft Library, a small branch library in the Seacroft area of Leeds.

17th century[edit]

In the early years of the 17th century, many famous collegiate and town libraries were founded throughout the country. Francis Trigge Chained Library of St. Wulfram's Church, Grantham, Lincolnshire was founded in 1598 by the rector of nearby Welbourne.[54] Norwich City library was established in 1608[55] (six years after Thomas Bodley founded the Bodleian Library, which was open to the "whole republic of the learned"[citation needed] and 145 years before the foundation of the British Museum),[citation needed] and Chetham's Library in Manchester, which claims to be the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, opened in 1653.[56] Other early town libraries of the UK include those of Ipswich (1612), Bristol (founded in 1613 and opened in 1615), and Leicester (1632). Shrewsbury School also opened its library to townsfolk.[57]

In Bristol, an early library that allowed access to the public was that of the Kalendars or Kalendaries, a brotherhood of clergy and laity who were attached to the Church of All-Hallowen or All Saints. Records show that in 1464, provision was made for a library to be erected in the house of the Kalendars, and reference is made to a deed of that date by which it was "appointed that all who wish to enter for the sake of instruction shall have 'free access and recess' at certain times".[citation needed]

18th century[edit]

At the start of the 18th century, libraries were becoming increasingly public and were more frequently lending libraries. The 18th century saw the switch from closed parochial libraries to lending libraries. Before this time, public libraries were parochial in nature and libraries frequently chained their books to desks.[58] Libraries also were not uniformly open to the public. In 1790, The Public Library Act would not be passed for another sixty-seven years.[59] Even though the British Museum existed at this time and contained over 50,000 books, the national library was not open to the public, or even to a majority of the population. Access to the Museum depended on passes, of which there was sometimes a waiting period of three to four weeks. Moreover, the library was not open to browsing. Once a pass to the library had been issued, the reader was taken on a tour of the library. Many readers complained that the tour was much too short.[60] At the start of the 19th century, there were virtually no public libraries in the sense in which we now understand the term i.e. libraries provided from public funds and freely accessible to all.[61] Only one important library in Great Britain, namely Chetham's Library in Manchester, was fully and freely accessible to the public.[61] However, there had come into being a whole network of library provision on a private or institutional basis. Subscription libraries, both private and commercial, provided the middle and middle to upper class with a variety of books for moderate fees.

The increase in secular literature at this time encouraged the spread of lending libraries, especially the commercial subscription libraries. Commercial subscription libraries began when booksellers began renting out extra copies of books in the mid-18th century. Steven Fischer estimates that in 1790, there were "about six hundred rental and lending libraries, with a clientele of some fifty thousand".[62] The mid- to late 18th century saw a virtual epidemic of feminine reading as novels became more and more popular.[63] Novels, while frowned upon in society, were extremely popular. In England there were many who lamented at the "villanous profane and obscene books" and the opposition to the circulating library, on moral grounds, persisted well into the 19th century.[64] Still, many establishments must have circulated many times the number of novels as of any other genre.[65] In 1797, Thomas Wilson wrote in The Use of Circulating Libraries: "Consider, that for a successful circulating library, the collection must contain 70% fiction". However, the overall percentage of novels mainly depended on the proprietor of the circulating library. While some circulating libraries were almost completely novels, others had less than 10% of their overall collection in the form of novels.[66] The national average start of the 20th century hovered around novels comprising about 20% of the total collection.[67] Novels varied from other types of books in many ways. They were read primarily for enjoyment instead of for study. They did not provide academic knowledge or spiritual guidance; thus they were read quickly and far fewer times than other books. These were the perfect books for commercial subscription libraries to lend. Since books were read for pure enjoyment rather than for scholarly work, books needed to become both cheaper and smaller. Small duodecimo editions of books were preferred to the large folio editions. Folio editions were read at a desk, while the small duodecimo editions could be easily read like the paperbacks of today. Much like paperbacks of today, many of the novels in circulating libraries were unbound. At this period of time, many people chose to bind their books in leather. Many circulating libraries skipped this process. Circulating libraries were not in the business of preserving books; their owners wanted to lend books as many times as they possibly could. Circulating libraries had ushered in a completely new way of reading. Reading was no longer simply an academic pursuit or an attempt to gain spiritual guidance. Reading became a social activity. Many circulating libraries were attached to the shops of milliners or drapers. They served as much for social gossip and the meeting of friends as coffee shops do today.[68]

Another factor in the growth of subscription libraries was the increasing cost of books. In the last two decades of the century, especially, prices were practically doubled, so that a quarto work cost a guinea, an octavo 10 shillings or 12 shillings, and a duodecimo cost 4 shillings per volume. Price apart, moreover, books were difficult to procure outside London, since local booksellers could not afford to carry large stocks.[69] Commercial libraries, since they were usually associated with booksellers, and also since they had a greater number of patrons, were able to accumulate greater numbers of books. The United Public Library was said to have a collection of some 52,000 volumes-–twice as many as any private subscription library in the country at that period.[70] These libraries, since they functioned as a business, also lent books to non-subscribers on a per-book system.[71]

Private subscription libraries[edit]

Private subscription libraries functioned in much the same manner as commercial subscription libraries, though they varied in many important ways. One of the most popular versions of the private subscription library was a gentleman's only library. The gentlemen's subscription libraries, sometimes known as proprietary libraries, were nearly all organized on a common pattern. Membership was restricted to the proprietors or shareholders, and ranged from a dozen or two to between four and five hundred. The entrance fee, i.e. the purchase price of a share, was in early days usually a guinea, but rose sharply as the century advanced, often reaching four or five guineas during the French wars; the annual subscription, during the same period, rose from about six shillings to ten shillings or more. The book-stock was, by modern standards, small (Liverpool, with over 8,000 volumes in 1801, seems to have been the largest), and was accommodated, at the outset, in makeshift premises–-very often over a bookshop, with the bookseller acting as librarian and receiving an honorarium for his pains.[72] The Liverpool Subscription library was a gentlemen only library. In 1798, it was renamed the Athenaeum when it was rebuilt with a newsroom and coffeehouse. It had an entrance fee of one guinea and annual subscription of five shillings.[73] While no records survive of the commercial library lendings, we have the Bristol Library's continuous record of borrowings ( in seventy-seven folio volumes) from 1773 to 1857. An analysis of the registers for the first twelve years provides glimpses of middle-class reading habits in a mercantile community at this period. The largest and most popular sections of the library were History, Antiquities, and Geography, with 283 titles and 6,121 borrowings, and Belles Lettres, with 238 titles and 3,313 borrowings. Far below came Theology and Ecclesiastical History, Natural History and Chemistry, Philosophy, Jurisprudence, Miscellanies, Mathematics, etc., and Medicine and Anatomy, all with fewer than 100 titles.[74] The most popular single work was John Hawkesworth's Account of Voyages ... in the Southern Hemisphere (3 vols) which was borrowed on 201 occasions. The records also show that in 1796, membership had risen by 1/3 to 198 subscribers (of whom 5 were women) and the titles increased five-fold to 4,987. This mirrors the increase in reading interests. A patron list from the Bath Municipal Library shows that from 1793 to 1799, the library held a stable 30% of their patrons as female.[75]

It was also uncommon for these libraries to have buildings designated solely as the library building during the 1790s, though in the 19th century, many libraries would begin building elaborate permanent residences. Bristol, Birmingham, and Liverpool were the few libraries with their own building.[76] The accommodations varied from the shelf for a few dozen volumes in the country stationer's or draper's shop, to the expansion to a back room, to the spacious elegant areas of Hookham's or those at the resorts like Scarborough, and four in a row at Margate.[77]

Private subscription libraries held a greater amount of control over both membership and the types of books in the library. There was almost a complete elimination of cheap fiction in the private societies.[78] Subscription libraries prided themselves on respectability. The highest percentage of subscribers were often landed proprietors, gentry, and old professions.[79]

Towards the end of the 18th century and in the first decades of the nineteenth the need for books and general education made itself felt among social classes created by the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.[80] The late 18th century saw a rise in subscription libraries intended for the use of tradesmen. In 1797, there was established at Kendal what was known as the Economical Library, "designed principally for the use and instruction of the working classes."[81] There was also the Artizans' library established at Birmingham in 1799. The entrance fee was 3 shillings. The subscription was 1 shilling 6 pence per quarter. This was a library of general literature. Novels, at first excluded, were afterwards admitted on condition that they did not account for more than one-tenth of the annual income.[72]

Rate-supported libraries[edit]

Although by the mid-19th century, England could claim 274 subscription libraries and Scotland, 266, the foundation of the modern public library system in Britain is the Public Libraries Act 1850. Prior to this, the municipalities of Warrington and Salford established libraries in their museums, under the terms of the Museums Act of 1845. Warrington Municipal Library opened in 1848. Salford Museum and Art Gallery first opened in November 1850 as "The Royal Museum & Public Library", as the first unconditionally free public library in England.[82][83] The library in Campfield, Manchester was the first library to operate a free lending library without subscription in 1852.[84] Norwich lays claims to being the first municipality to adopt the Public Libraries Act 1850 (which allowed any municipal borough with a population of 100,000 or more to introduce a halfpenny rate to establish public libraries—although not to buy books). Norwich was the eleventh library to open, in 1857, after Winchester, Manchester, Liverpool, Bolton, Kidderminster, Cambridge, Birkenhead and Sheffield.

County libraries are a later development which were made possible by the establishment of County Councils in 1888. They normally have a large central library in a major town with smaller branch libraries in other towns and a mobile library service covering rural areas.

20th century[edit]

The Scottish-American philanthropist and businessman, Andrew Carnegie, helped to increase the number of public libraries from the late 19th century. He built 660 Carnegie Libraries in Britain, in addition to many more in the Commonwealth and the U.S.[85]

After the Carnegie philanthropies wound down after 1914, there was a long hiatus in the expansion of public library services. Finally in the 1960s and 1970s funding opened up again and planners envisioned a modern future in keeping with the principles of equalitarianism and universalism underpinning the welfare state. Inspired by a Labourite vision, many librarians espoused a radically new approach, "community librarianship," designed to overcome the conservative, upper-class, and middle-class heritage drawn from Victorian days. They wanted to set up truly popular institutions that would appeal across class lines. The planners were successful in building modern libraries, but were surprised to discover the clientele was heavily middle-class, with the working class showing scant interest.[86]

A committee chaired by Sir Sydney Roberts was appointed in 1957 by the Minister of Education and reported in 1959; the report was entitled The Structure of the Public Library Service in England and Wales. Among its recommendations was the enactment of a new Public Libraries Act.[87]


The Toronto Reference Library, centerpiece of the Toronto Public Library system

In 1779 Governor Frederick Haldimand founded the first subscription library in Québec City, Canada. Canada's small libraries were mostly held by rich families or religious institutions, and the general public was not admitted. "Haldimand's library, like other subscription libraries, appealed primarily to an urban elite",[88] Haldimand's library later merged with the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec (established in 1824), which displays the original Québec Library collection within its library. This and similar association/social libraries were examples of early prototypes of public libraries. They were public in that membership was allowed regardless of class or religion, and many in Canada eventually evolved into free public libraries.[89]

"Subsequently legislative collections were established in 1791 in Upper and in 1792 in Lower Canada ; and in 1796 the first public library was founded in Montreal. In 1800, libraries were established in King's College, Nova Scotia, and at Niagara, where the first public library in Upper Canada operated for twenty years, in spite of losses during the War of 1812.".[90]

In Saint John, New Brunswick in 1883, following the efforts of Colonel James Domville in procuring a collection of materials to replace the many private collections lost in the Great Fire of Saint John, New Brunswick the first free, tax-supported public library was established. Guelph, Ontario and Toronto, Ontario opened public libraries that same year as well.[89] Due to Canada's size and diversity, the development of the modern Canadian public library was more of a slow evolution than a quick transition as each of the provinces' specific conditions (geographic, economic, cultural, demographic, etc.) had first to be addressed.[89] The public library therefore took on many forms in Canada's earlier years; the three most prevalent of these forms were school-district libraries, Mechanics Institutes, and association/social libraries (see reference to Literary and Historical Society of Quebec above).[89]

In 1850, school-district libraries were initiated in Canada. Public servant Joseph Howe started one in Nova Scotia, and politician Egerton Ryerson started one in Ontario. New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island followed suit in 1858 and 1877, respectively. The hope was that both children and adults could benefit from the local school authorities, where financial assistance was provided from colonial legislatures, but the departments of education proved to be too centralizing for locals and this practiced was phased out.[91] Mechanics Institutes also contained libraries that the working class could access inexpensively. The first Canadian library of its kind was established in 1828 in Montréal, Québec. Other communities took up this idea as well – notably those in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Hamilton, Ontario, Toronto, Ontario and Victoria, British Columbia. Like the school-district libraries, these institutes eventually ceased or were replaced by public libraries.[92]

The public library that opened in Toronto, Ontario, was mostly due to a campaign by city alderman John Hallam. James Bain became the first chief librarian, and built a comprehensive collection of Canadian literature and history. The Toronto Public Library was one of the first libraries to choose free status, and it was the largest of them all.[93] Its development flourished after 1900 when Carnegie grants began to aid in building construction and the expansion of collections and services. During this time, open access and children's departments were introduced, and standard cataloguing and classification systems were adopted.[94] Many of the original branches, funded by a Carnegie grant, still stand and continue to be operated by the Toronto Public Library.[95] Other provinces were affected by Carnegie as well and followed Ontario's lead in legislating tax support for library services. British Columbia acted in 1891, Manitoba in 1899, Saskatchewan in 1906, and in Alberta, the first legislation officially passed by the legislative assembly was the Library Act.[96] The act was passed March 15, 1907.[97][98] The next provinces to follow were New Brunswick in 1929, Newfoundland in 1935, Prince Edward Island in 1936, Nova Scotia in 1937, Québec in1959, and then the Northwest Territories in 1966.[93]

As they stand today, public libraries in Canada are "governed by provincial statues and are primarily financed by municipal tax revenues and other local income, with provincial grants supplementing local funding. [They are also] the responsibility of a local or regional library board with authority to appoint or dismiss employees, control library property, establish policies, and budget for library operations."[94] Though the services offered vary from local branch to local branch, public libraries in Canada are not only places to read and borrow books; they are also hubs of community services, such as early reading programs, computer access, and tutoring and literacy help for children and adults.[99][100]

Throughout the years, Canadian libraries have been subject to the political and economic influence of the nation. During World War II, public libraries experienced development setbacks, but expansion resumed in 1945. Then, in the 1960s, Canadian public libraries felt the benefits of the era's emphasis on education – service expanded, buildings were remodeled or constructed from scratch, and Centennial Grants were provided in order to improve the system. This period of growth ended in due to the inflationary period in the 1970s and the two recessions during the 1980s.[94] However, in the late 1990s this trend reversed and the National Core Library Statistics Program reported in 1999 that public libraries served 28.5 million municipal residents – a total of 93% of the Canadian population.[101] Nevertheless, in 2011 the tides turned for public libraries in Canada once again, specifically in Toronto. The city is now undergoing a heated debate regarding Mayor Rob Ford's proposed budget cuts for the Toronto Public Library, which is currently one of the most efficient public library systems in all of North America.[102]


Library services in Australia developed along different paths in the different States. In 1809 the Reverend Samuel Marsden advertised in England for donations to help found a "Lending Library for the general benefit of the inhabitants of New South Wales". The library would cover "Divinity and Morals, History, Voyages and Travels, Agriculture in all its branches, Mineralogy and Practical Mechanics". No Public Library came to fruition from this although some of the books brought to the colony after this call survive in the library of Moore Theological College.

The place of Public Libraries was filled by Mechanics' Institutes, schools of arts, athenaeums and literary institutes. Some of these provided free library services to visitors. However lending rights were available only to members who were required to pay a subscription.

In 1856, the Victorian colonial government opened the Melbourne Public Library (now the State Library of Victoria). This was however purely a reference library. In September 1869, the New South Wales (NSW) government opened as the Free Public Library, Sydney (now the State Library of New South Wales) by purchasing a bankrupt subscription library. In 1896, the Brisbane Public Library was established. The Library's collection, purchased by the Queensland Government from the private collection of Mr. Justice Harding.

In 1932, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, funded a survey (The Munn-Pitt Report) into Australian libraries. It found "wretched little institutes" which were "cemeteries of old and forgotten books". There was also criticism of the limited public access, poor staff training, unsatisfactory collections, lack of non-fiction, absence of catalogues and poor levels of service for children. Lending libraries in Sydney (NSW) and Prahran (Victoria) were praised as examples of services which were doing well, but these were seen as exceptions.

In NSW, The Free Library Movement was established in response to the Munn-Pitt Report. This collection of (amongst others) concerned citizens, progress associations, returned servicemen and trade unions advocated a system of public libraries to serve the needs of all people. The birth of the movement took place at a public meeting in the Chatswood-Willoughby School of Arts, Sydney, in 1935. George Brain, President of the Middle Harbour Progress Association, ran the meeting. George Brain initiated the resolution which brought the Free Library Movement into existence in NSW as well as the election of provisional office bearers, including himself as Honorary Secretary. This movement was stalled by the onset of World War II in 1939.

In 1943, Queensland established the Library Board of Queensland to manage the operations of the Public Library of Queensland, and coordinate and improve library facilities throughout the State.

After the war, and with George Brain now in NSW parliament as a principle advocate for the Free Library Movement, the passing of Library Acts in NSW and the other states at the end of the war marked the beginning of modern public libraries in Australia.

The old State Library of Queensland,

Even after the war, the development of free lending libraries in Australia had been agonizingly slow: it was not until the 1960s that local governments began to establish public libraries in suburban areas.

Currently there are 1402 Australian public libraries[103] plus 78 mobile libraries. Australians generate more than 110 million library visits per year (that is about 9 million visits per month). There are more than 9.9 million library members (or 46% of the population), more than 41.5 million items to use and borrow, plus more than 11,600 computers for public use. It costs $882.3 million to run Australian public libraries. They return at least $2.6 billion-worth of community benefits.[citation needed] All this costs Australians $830 million - just over 10c a day each with a benchmark for best practice funding being 20c per day.[citation needed]

Hong Kong[edit]

Hong Kong Public Libraries is one of the largest public library systems in Asia and carries the largest Chinese and English circulations in the world.

United States[edit]

Libraries often display exhibits inside and outside the structures, as this sculpture of a little girl reading at the public library in Trinidad, Colorado.

As the United States developed from the 18th century to today, growing more populous and wealthier, factors such as a push for education and desire to share knowledge led to broad public support for free libraries. In addition, money donations by private philanthropists provided the seed capital to get many libraries started. In some instances, collectors donated large book collections.[104]

First libraries[edit]

William James Sidis in The Tribes and the States claims the public library, as such, was an American invention.[105]

Bates Hall reading room in the Boston Public Library. Founded in 1848, it has 6.1 million books.[16]

In 1731, Benjamin Franklin and the other members of the discussion club the Junto founded the Library Company of Philadelphia partly as a means to settle arguments and partly as a means to advance themselves through sharing information. Franklin's subscription library allowed members to buy "shares" and combined funds were used to buy more books; in return, members could borrow books and use the library. Today, the Library Company continues to exist as a nonprofit, independent research library.

A town in Massachusetts named itself Franklin after the famous Pennsylvanian. For this honor, Franklin donated 116 books to the town in lieu of a requested church bell.[106] Franklin's town meeting voted to lend the books to all Franklin inhabitants free of charge in 1790, and this small collection can therefore be considered the first public library in the United States.[107]

A public library building in Altona, Illinois, a small village in the Midwestern United States.

The first free public library supported by taxation in the world was the Peterborough, New Hampshire Town Library which was founded at town meeting on April 9, 1833.[108] Many sources claim to have been the first, such as Boston's Public Library, which was actually the second, established in 1848.[109] The first free continuous children's library in the United States was founded in 1835 in Arlington, Massachusetts.[110]

New York lawyer, governor and bibliophile Samuel J. Tilden bequeathed millions to build the New York Public Library. He believed Americans should have access to books and a free education if desired. In 1902, one account suggested "the village library is growing more and more an indispensable adjunct to American village life."[111]

The public library in Summit, New Jersey

Libraries have been started with wills from other benefactors. For example, the Bacon Free Library in South Natick, Massachusetts was founded in 1881 after a benefactor left $15,000 in a will; it has operated as a public library since then.[112]

Once the idea of the public library as an agency worthy of taxation was broadly established during the 19th and early 20th centuries, librarians through actions of the American Library Association and its division devoted to public libraries, the Public Library Association, sought ways to identify standards and guidelines to ensure quality service.[113] Legislation such as the Library Services Act and the Library Services and Construction Act ensured that unserved areas and unserved groups would have access to library services.[114]

In 2009, with the Great Recession, many public libraries have budget shortfalls. The library in Darby, Pennsylvania found expenses were greater than revenues from local property taxes, state funds, and investment income; it was on the risk of closing, according to a newspaper report.[115]

Changing roles of libraries[edit]

The former Williams Free Library in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin features an architectural style called Richardsonian Romanesque.

In many towns and small cities before 1900, local boosters operated social libraries, which were open by subscription. The middle classes patronized them, borrowed bestsellers and old classics, and came to know the other book lovers in town. These libraries became the forerunners of the public library.[116]

Butte, Montana was perhaps the largest, richest and rowdiest mining camp in the American West. City boosters opened a public library in 1893. Ring argues that the library was originally a mechanism of social control, "an antidote to the miners' proclivity for drinking, whoring, and gambling." It was also designed to promote middle-class values and to convince Easterners the Butte was a cultivated city.[117] Quite apart from the Wild West, civic boosters hailed the opening of a public library as a landmark in their upward march of civilization and civility.[118]

As VanSlyck (1989) shows, the last years of the 19th century saw acceptance of the idea that libraries should be available to the American public free of charge. However the design of the idealized free library was at the center of a prolonged and heated debate. On one hand, wealthy philanthropists favored grandiose monuments that reinforced the paternalistic metaphor and enhanced civic pride. They wanted a grandiose showcase that created a grand vista through a double-height, alcoved bookhall with domestically-scaled reading rooms, perhaps dominated by the donor's portrait over the fireplace. Typical examples were the New York Public Library and the Chicago Public Library. Librarians considered that grand design inefficient, and too expensive to maintain.[119] The Brumback Library in Van Wert, Ohio claims to be the first county library in US.[120]

Melvil Dewey instituted a traveling library system for upstate of New York in 1892. The idea spread rapidly in the North. By 1898 there were over a hundred traveling libraries in Wisconsin alone, 534 in New York.

Carnegie libraries[edit]

Andrew Carnegie, born to poverty taught himself and became a leading industrialist and philanthropist. Among his many philanthropies was the public library—he built and furnished a library if the city agreed to maintain and staff it. He gave over $60 million, which was a vast fortune in 21st-century dollars.[121] Carnegie envisioned that libraries would "bring books and information to all people."[22]

A total of 2,509 Carnegie libraries were built between 1883 and 1929, including some belonging to universities. 1,689 were built in the United States, 660 in Britain and Ireland, 125 in Canada, and others in Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. By 1930, half the American public libraries had been built by Carnegie.[122]

Carnegie was attached to free libraries since his days as a young messenger-boy in Pittsburgh, when each Saturday he borrowed a new book from one. Carnegie systematically funded 2,507 libraries throughout the English-speaking world. James Bertram, Carnegie's chief aide from 1894 to 1914 administered the library program, issued guidelines and instituted an architectural review process.[123]

Between 1886 and 1917, Carnegie reformed both library philanthropy and library design, encouraging a closer correspondence between the two. The Carnegie buildings typically followed a standardized style called "Carnegie Classic": a rectangular, T-shaped or L-shaped structure of stone or brick, with rusticated stone foundations and low-pitched, hipped roofs, with space allocated by function and efficiency.[119]

His libraries served not only as free circulating collections of books, magazines and newspapers, but also provided classrooms for growing school districts, Red Cross stations, and public meeting spaces, not to mention permanent jobs for the graduates of newly formed library schools. Academic libraries were built for 108 colleges. Usually there was no charge to read or borrow; in New Zealand, however, local taxes were too low to support libraries and most charged subscription fees to their users. The arrangements were always the same: Carnegie would provide the funds for the building but only after the municipal government had provided a site for the building and had passed an ordinance for the purchase of books and future maintenance of the library through taxation. This policy was in accord with Carnegie's philosophy that the dispensation of wealth for the benefit of society must never be in the form of free charity but rather must be as a buttress to the community's responsibility for its own welfare.

In 1901, Carnegie offered to donate $100,000 to the city of Richmond, Virginia, for a public library. The city council had to furnish a site for the building and guarantee that $10,000 in municipal funds would be budgeted for the library each year. Despite the support from the majority of Richmond's civic leaders, the city council rejected Carnegie's offer. A combination of aversion to new taxes, fear of modernization, and fear that Carnegie might require the city to admit black patrons to his library account for the local government's refusal.[124] In 1903 union leaders in Wheeling, West Virginia, blocked the acceptance of a Carnegie library there. The Detroit Library subsisted on library fines and inadequate city funds; Carnegie offered $750,000 in 1901 but was turned down because it was "tainted money"; after nine more years of underfunding Detroit took the money.



Claude Sallier, the philologist and churchman, had an idea that was advanced for its era—to make culture accessible to all. From 1737 to 1750 he made books available to the town of Saulieu, forming France's first public library.

The pioneer of modern public libraries in France was Eugène Morel, a writer and one of the librarians at the Bibliothèque nationale. He put forward his ideas in the 1910 book La Librairie publique.[125][126]


Inside Biblioteca Malatestiana

The Malatestiana Library (Italian: Biblioteca Malatestiana), also known as the Malatesta Novello Library, is a public library dating from 1452 in Cesena, Emilia-Romagna (Italy). It was the first European civic library,[127] i.e. belonging to the Commune and open to everybody. It was commissioned by the Lord of Cesena, Malatesta Novello. The works were directed by Matteo Nuti of Fano (a scholar of Leon Battista Alberti) and lasted from 1447 to 1452.


The Załuski Library (Polish: Biblioteka Załuskich, Latin: Bibliotheca Zalusciana) was built in Warsaw 1747–1795 by Józef Andrzej Załuski and his brother, Andrzej Stanisław Załuski, both Roman Catholic bishops. The library was open to the public and indeed was the first Polish public library, the biggest in Poland and one of the earliest public libraries in Europe.[128] In 1794, the library was seized by the Russians and taken to St Pdetersburg, where it became the basis of the Russian national Library. The library was slowly rebuilt, Once again the library was decimated during World War II during the period following the Warsaw Uprising. The Załuski Library was succeeded by the creation of the National Library of Poland (Biblioteka Narodowa) in 1928.

Latin America[edit]


In 1646, Don Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, bishop of Puebla and Viceroy of New Spain, expelled the Jesuits from New Spain, and confiscated their books to found the Biblioteca Palafoxiana. It was the first public library in New Spain. It was in Puebla and open to all readers.

The Biblioteca Palafoxiana exists today and is listed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme.

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Barnett, Graham Keith (1973) The history of public libraries in France from the Revolution to 1939
  • Bobinski, George S. (1969) Carnegie Libraries: their history and impact on American public library development. Chicago: American Library Association ISBN 0-8389-0022-4
  • Garrison, Dee (1979) Apostles of Culture: the public librarian and American society, 1876-1920. New York: Free Press ISBN 0-02-693850-2
  • Getz, Malcolm (1985). Why Public Libraries? In series, Libraries 2000. Edmonton, Alta.: Library Services Branch, Alberta Culture. ISBN 0-919411-26-6
  • Jones, Barbara M., "Libraries, Access, and Intellectual Freedom", American Library Association, 1999.
  • Kelly, Thomas (1966) Early Public Libraries: a history of public libraries in Great Britain before 1850. London: Library Association
  • McCook, Kathleen de la Peña (2011), Introduction to Public Librarianship, 2nd ed. New York, Neal-Schuman.
  • Martin, Lowell A. (2003) Enrichment: A History of the Public Library in the United States in the Twentieth Century
  • Minow, Mary; Lipinski, Tomas A., "The Library's Legal Answer Book", American Library Association, 2003.
  • Overington, Michael A. The Subject Departmentalized Public Library. London: The Library Association, 1969. 167 p. SBN 85365-051-9
  • Stockham, K. A., ed. (1969) British County Libraries: 1919-1969. London: André Deutsch ISBN 0-233-96111-9
  • Wedgeworth, Robert, et al. eds. (1993). World Encyclopedia of Library and Information Services (3rd ed.). American Library Association. 

External links[edit]