Wednesday, July 2, 2008

As American as Public Libraries

Mom, baseball, apple pie AND public libraries: to me they belong together. Public libraries are a powerful symbol of American democracy. But then, I am biased. I have been librarycentric and bookcentric since I was a young child, and perhaps inevitably grew up to be a librarian.

Now, for some factoids about public libraries... According to the American Library Association, ALA, there are 16,549 public libraries in our country. As of yesterday when I did my research using the U.S Population Clock, there were 304, 488,000 U.S. residents. That means there is approximately one public library per every 18,399 residents. That's more libraries than McDonald's franchises. And there is, of course, a big difference in library "franchises". They are "owned" by their public, not by a corporation or individual. Today's public libraries strive to be responsive to customer input. Some library systems use the word "member" instead of customer. Perhaps that's a better, more inclusive word for the public library relationship. A member of an organization usually has more input than a customer.

Ben Franklin's Library Company opened in Philadelphia in 1731. There were 50 subscribers, later called members, who donated 40 shillings each and pledged 10 shillings yearly to buy more books. Their motto: "To support the common good is divine." If you weren't an official member, you could put down a small deposit to borrow something. The Library Company was open on Saturdays from 4PM to 8PM. There were nine Library Company members among the fifty-six members of the Continental Congress who signed the 1776 Declaration of Independence.

The oldest library in the United States is actually located at Harvard University. Around 1638, a man named John Harvard donated 40 books and some money to an unnamed university. Subsequently, the university was named for him and their library began. Tax-supported U.S. public libraries did not begin until the 1800s; one of the first was established in Peterborough, New Hampshire in 1833.

Andrew Carnegie is the big name in free public libraries. From 1881 - 1919, he funded as many as 2,500 libraries throughout the English-speaking world. And then we have Meville Dewey, instrumental in the founding of ALA and Library Journal magazine. When he was a student library assistant at Amherst college in 1872, he managed to come up with the Dewey classification system we still use today. He also founded the country's first library school at Columbia University. They say he had a lot to do with welcoming women into the primarily male career field.

So that is my quick overview of where American public libraries came from. I'm glad we're here, and contrary to some dire prophecies, I think we are here to stay. May it be so....

photo by KAO: Graffiti Flag, construction site, Manhattan, May 2008

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