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Setting the Stage


Libraries arrived on the North American continent with the first European settlers. Religious books, primarily for the use of the clergy, formed the center of most 17th-century collections. The richest colonial merchants and planters often developed their own libraries, but the number of people regularly reading books, other than the Bible, was quite small.

Books became available to a broader public as the 18th century progressed. Improvements in printing methods lowered their cost, making them affordable to more people. Increased interest in commerce, science, and art spurred a demand for more information--a demand that was often best satisfied through reading. Colonists began to form social libraries in which individuals contributed money to purchase books. Library societies sprang up in urban centers; outstanding examples include those still existing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Charleston, South Carolina, and New York, New York. However, such societies generally only lent their books to those who had donated money.

Libraries continued to develop after the Revolutionary War. Women, for example, created their own collections, with books often circulating great distances among farms and plantations. Between 1815 and 1850, library societies increasingly concentrated on specialized subjects. Mercantile libraries held books of interest to clerks and businessmen, while the collections of mechanics’ and seamen’s libraries specialized in their particular trades. These libraries were supported by business owners and provided educational and social opportunities for young men.

During the second half of the 19th century the "free" library movement--that is, open to the public at no charge--began to spread. Reformers saw libraries as a valuable tool in their attempts to repair what they saw as the flaws in a rapidly industrializing nation. More directly, libraries provided information about an increasingly complicated and technical world. Reformers believed libraries could teach millions of immigrants how to succeed in America, and provide the poor with the knowledge they needed to rise in society. Also, reformers thought well-educated voters would be better able to resist the lure of dishonest politicians. Finally, libraries offered an alternative to unwholesome pursuits such as drinking and gambling.

Making libraries a tool for reform, however, proved difficult. Lack of money, insufficient book collections, and limited memberships prevented social libraries from expanding as fast as the American population. America’s rapidly growing towns and cities demanded many services, such as better transportation, sanitation, and schools. Buying books and building libraries were, for most citizens, a lower priority.

Even though a relatively small number of places had developed public libraries before the 1880s, enough progress had occurred to give supporters hope. Cities gradually gained the right to tax, which held the potential to supply funds. The growth in public schools indicated an increasing interest in education. It was at this point that the generosity of Andrew Carnegie accelerated the development of American libraries. His donations provided communities across the country with millions of dollars to build new libraries.

 

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