History of US Public Libraries

History of US Public Libraries

When you search online for "first public library in the United States" you might get conflicting information. Three libraries claim this distinction. All three were established long before 1776. In the 1720s, Philadelphia resident Benjamin Franklin worked in a print shop. He and eleven friends founded the Junto Club in 1727. The purpose of this men's club was to discuss politics and philosophy, among other topics. Through the years, this group put into place the framework for several public services we consider essential, including a fire department, a hospital and a university.

They arguably also started the first public library in the US. Franklin said, "And now I set on foot my first project of a public nature, that for a subscription library." 

Books were expensive, and not readily available in Philadelphia. A book might have cost from 16 to 20 shillings, or about 50% of an average family's weekly income. Only clergy and the wealthy would have owned books, and Colonists had to travel to New York or Boston to visit a bookstore. Most of the books available in the colonies were printed in England and imported. 

If you think back through American history, you may remember learning something about the Stamp Act and taxation without representation. In 1710, Queen Anne of England instituted a tax on paper items such as calendars and almanacs. It was amended through the years to include other items like pamphlets and newspapers. These were how the colonists protested laws from far-off English royalty. For some reason, books were exempt in the Stamp Act. 

Junto Club members started bringing their personal books to the meetings to refer to during their discussions. After a while, Franklin suggested they combine their books and house them together, where they were easier to access. In his words,

…it might be convenient to us to have them [the books] altogether where we met, that upon occasion they might be consulted…while we lik’d to keep them together, have each of us the advantage of using the books of all the other members, which would be nearly as beneficial as if each owned the whole.

The men agreed, but some had misgivings about combining their possessions in this manner, so after a year the members took their books back home. 

The Junto Club then decided to create what is called a subscription library in 1731. Members paid a one-time fee of 40 shillings then an additional annual fee of 10 shillings. These funds were used for book purchases. In 1732 they sent a book order to England and started The Library Company. In the 1700s most of the books in college and private libraries were written in Latin. The Library Company focused their collection on books written in English.

Readers who could afford the membership fee were welcome to borrow books, but non-members had to provide collateral to borrow a book. Overdue fines were expensive (double the value of the book). Over the next few years the idea caught on and other nearby towns instituted subscription libraries. 

In his own words, Franklin said about the Junto Club, "We had from the beginning made it a rule to keep our institution a secret, which was pretty well observ'd; the intention was to avoid application of improper persons for admittance, some of whom, perhaps, we might find it difficult to refuse." At this time, they might have been hoping to avoid members who were sympathetic to the crown, but they could have also intended to refuse admittance due to religion, economic status, or race.

Gering Public Library started its life in 1895 as a subscription library supported by the Gering Women's Literary Club. Each woman donated a book from her personal library. Every year, women would encourage Gering residents to donate books to the library. In 1920 Gering's library became a tax-supported public library.

This is the first of a three-part series on early libraries in the United States. Next week's article is about the Peterborough, New Hampshire Town Library.