Annoyed Librarian
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Would Public Libraries Be Founded Today?

Every once in a while, I speculate on an alternative history for public libraries. It seems like they’ve always been embattled, and that makes me wonder if the public library movement could have been successful in any other era.

The late nineteenth century was a boom time in American history. America always seems to be booming and busting in forceful ways, but the late nineteenth century was especially booming. Americans still believed in public education and public projects. Towns and cities that had been cultural backwaters in an age of slow communication started to understand that building a few good cultural institutions – schools, colleges, libraries, symphonies, theaters – that it might actually be good for people.

And of course there was Melvil Dewey doing his best to make librarians into professionals of some sort, instead of the loose collection of bibliophiles and bluestockings that ran what few libraries there were. We got the ALA and a small army of library advocates.

The ALA published little gems like Why Do We Need a Public Library: Materials for Library Campaign in 1910. (Thanks to the kind reader who sent this to me.) Citizens who wanted a public library were instructed to write frequent short articles in local publications. “Make the articles breezy, optimistic, with local application. You can get a library if you are in earnest.” Breezy, optimistic, earnest: I’m not sure one could find better adjectives to describe most of the fluff the ALA publishes still. No cool analysis or deep cogitation for us librarians! We’re breezy, optimistic, and earnest, and we hate popular pseudonymous bloggers who aren’t!

Or this advice: “Keep this fact in mind—Your people want a library and only need pluck and a leader.” Pluck! That’s what so many librarians have in abundance. It gets a bit tiresome after a century, though.

But why or why would “your people want a library”? Reading the list of reasons will tell you what librarians thought would be effective a century ago.

1. It doubles the value of the education the child receives in school, and, best of all, imparts a desire for knowledge which serves as an incentive to continue his education after leaving school; and, having furnished the incentive, it further supplies the means for a life-long continuance of education.
2. It provides for the education of adults who have lacked, or failed to make use of, early opportunities.
3. It furnishes information to teachers, ministers, journalists, physicians, legislators, all persons upon whose work depend the intellectual, moral, sanitary and political welfare and advancement of the people.
4. It furnishes books and periodicals for the technical instruction and information of mechanics, artisans, manufacturers, engineers and all others whose work requires technical knowledge—of all persons upon whom depends the industrial progress of the city.
5. It is of incalculable benefit to the city by affording to thousands the highest and purest entertainment, and thus lessening crime and disorder.
6. It makes the city a more desirable place of residence, and thus retains the best citizens and attracts others of the same character.
7. More than any other agency, it elevates the general standard of intelligence throughout the great body of the community, upon which its material prosperity, as well as its moral and political well-being, must depend. Finally, the public library includes potentially all other means of social betterment.

Doubles the value of an education. Imparts a desire for knowledge. Provide for adult education. Furnishes information to professionals. Furnishes technical instruction. We get down to reason 5 before the word entertainment shows up, and even then it’s prefaced by “highest and purest” (you know, like Black Ops!). Libraries attract the best citizens and elevate the general standard of intelligence! If that’s true, I’d hate to know the state general level of intelligence in the country before public libraries.

Would this work today? If the public library hadn’t been founded in a different age, would it still be founded today? All of these reasons appealed to the desire for intelligence, knowledge, and wisdom, or at least the appearance of them.

The funny thing is, libraries are still capable of aiding intelligence, spreading knowledge, and fostering wisdom. It’s just that usually they don’t. It wasn’t very long until the “highest and purest entertainment” became “the lowest common denominator of popular novels,” because it turned out the public didn’t want intelligent reading or high entertainment. That’s why when public libraries want to seem relevant or popular now, they don’t appeal to intelligence or knowledge, but to videogames and movies. “Get free DVDs at the library!” That’s honest advertising, but would it suffice to found a library?

And don’t forget Andrew Carnegie. He helped found a lot of public libraries, as all librarians know. But what most of them don’t know is that he didn’t just hand money over to towns. The town had to vote to found and continue funding the library. Carnegie knew that libraries could help poor boys become robber barons, but he didn’t believe in giving alms to layabouts. Towns that wanted a Carnegie library had to show they would tax themselves to keep paying for it.

Would the same thing happen now? If Bill Gates went to some town that never had a library and said, I’ll pay for a building and some books and computers if you’ll tax yourselves to keep the library running, how many would? What if he threw in a few DVDs and videogames? Would that help?

The big question is, if public libraries didn’t exist, would they be founded today? I suspect not, but I’ll save my reasons for the next post.



  1. Given the watered down nature of the recent health care reform legislation, America basically just proved that you couldn’t start Medicare/Medicaid these days.

    However, saying our nation’s current infatuation with tearing down our infrastructure in lieu of paying taxes is due to the presence of popular novels in our public libraries is a bit of stretch.

    Given the tone of this post I’m expecting your upcoming thoughts to be another one of the AL’s trademark, thinly vield rants against any book that isn’t ‘serious reading ‘ being bought on the public dime. Of course framed in the context of whatever article got you upset this week.

    I eagerly await what is sure to be another entry in a long series of posts that basically amount to taking popular reading way to seriously, while acting as if books that aren’t “serious literature” were invented 20 years ago as a means of destroying society’s higher ideals.

  2. No. In an era when an attempt to insure that a free and open capital market is truly free and open gets derided as socialist, what luck would a truly socialist idea have?

  3. How about another reason to have a public library? Instead of buying every single book, DVD, audiobook, magazine, music CD, eBook or database that you need or want, why not share the items as a community? It’s a green idea as well as one that saves you money. In my community, if a taxpayer checks out just one or two books per year, the value of the books will be more than what he or she paid in property taxes that are designated for the library.

  4. Randal Powell says:

    As far as I am concerned, those reasons are just as applicable today as they were a century ago. If the library is not around to provide the masses access to great minds, where are they going to go?

    Wikipedia and public domain works only get one so far. K12 education is a sad joke…there’s certainly no truth and beauty to be had there. Even elite universities, with their focus on ferocious competition and perfect appearances, are little more than well-marketed vocational training schools. The library is truly the only American institution that facilitates and encourages a life of the mind — THAT is worth fighting for.

  5. Techserving You says:

    “Fortunately” most people just pay their property taxes and don’t use the library… just like many people pay their property taxes and don’t have kids in the schools.

  6. Watermelons: green on the outside, red on the inside.

  7. anonymous says:

    Today, publishers would assure that libraries never got off the ground.

    But it doesn’t really matter — we already have a new system of public libraries. It’s called the Internet. And the emerging financial model is pay per view.

  8. As has been pointed out elsewhere, nope, libraries wouldn’t be started today because they wouldn’t be able to get the exceptions to copyright law they would need to operate.

    In response to some comments… Wikipedia goes further in some ways than plain library access can. Sometimes it’s got awfully good writing and it’s always fast and comprehensive.

    The emerging financial model of the Internet is “free,” not pay per view. Google books: free. Wikipedia: free. Pandora radio: free (with ads). Blogs: free (ads sometimes). YouTube: free (w/ ads). Flash games: free. Maybe in a way we’re learning to tune out the free stuff and take it for granted, but there’s getting to be more and more and more of it.

  9. Google books are NOT free — they compete with Kindle and Nook on price and you pay for the download of drm-locked pdfs. I’d say with blogs and youtube, you get what you pay for most of the time. We can have an argument about whether ad-supported entertainment sites are really “free,” but if you want premium content, increasingly you have to pay for it. The big sites — itunes, hulu, netflix, top newspaper sites, legit Napster — are all pay per view models for full content access and more are adding premium content subscriptions all the time. Half the articles on now that used to be free now require premium subscriptions. Even the NYTimes is going pay per view.

  10. Grace Kempster says:

    As powerhouses of revolution and independant thought libraries have never meant borrowing books – instead they are LIBERators from ignorance and a please for reading experiences to enable all to grow, know, find out and illuminate lives.
    The meanings and values they hold in the lives of individuals families and communities would be replicated today – as one person recently said “Libraries are fantastic – i don’t mind paying for my use – but i don’t want other people who cannot having to” In austere tmies libraries are the common wealth and recycling kings of knowledge. i believe there is substantial goodness because people refer to My library not The library – they are extraordinarily ordinary and a genius of public good.

  11. In a general sense, the materials taught in K-12 is indeed al available through the Internet. It is not until perhaps the Junior Year of college when one needs to start using more specific, focused works. Otherwise, the value of a “general information” collection has essentially shrunk down to, well…zero.

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