William James Sidis in The Tribes and the States claims the public library, as such, was an American invention.
Bates Hall reading room in the Boston Public Library. Founded in 1848, it has 6.1 million books. There were parish (parochial) libraries open in Anglican churches all over the American colonies. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, founded in 1701, subsidized libraries as a regular part of their missionary activity whenever they sent a priest to an Anglican mission or church that did not have a library already. There would thus have been parish libraries at the 289 Anglican churches, and at various missions.
According to Edmund Farwell Slafter, the first public library was founded in Boston by the Rev. John Checkley at the Old State House sometime between 1711 when Boston's Old State House was built, and 1725. In a letter to the Rev. Dr. Thomas Bennet, dated June 15, 1725, Checkley wrote:
In a short Time I propose to send you an account of the charitable Society of the Church of England, and of the public Library erected here: the laying the Foundation of both which, I have been (thanks to my good God) the happy tho' unworthy Instrument. - Rev. John Checkley
The library was destroyed when the Old State House interior was consumed by fire on December 9, 1747,when many books, papers, and records were destroyed.
There is evidence of other and possibly earlier public libraries. The Rev. John Sharpe, who had traveled as a missionary priest over the colonies from Maryland to Connecticut, thought the parish library in New York inadequate. He devised an advanced plan for a public library in New York City open to all. In a letter on March 11, 1713 he notes there were already at least four public libraries in the colonies including the one in Boston:
Another thing which is very much wanted here is a publick Library, which would very much advance both learning and piety. Such there are at Charles Town in Carolina, Annapolis in Mary Land, at Philadelphia and Boston. Some books have been formerly sent to New York but as parochial they remain in the hands of the Incumbent. - Rev. John Sharpe
He proposed the institution should be "publick and provincial" and "open every day in the week at convenient hours," when "all men may have liberty to read in the Library."
Just before returning to England in 1713 after a decade spent as a missionary priest in America, he left behind 238 of his volumes to be "given for the laying of a foundation of a Public Library." However, it wasn't until thirty years after Sharp left America that a dozen men in 1754 founded the New York Society Library with Sharp's books as its core. His advanced dream of a library open every day was not to be accomplished in New York until 1791.
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. 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.
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. Many sources claim to have been the first, such as Boston's Public Library, which was actually the second, established in 1852. The first free continuous children's library in the United States was founded in 1835 in Arlington, Massachusetts.
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."
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.
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. 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.
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.
Changing roles of libraries
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.
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 that Butte was a cultivated city. 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.
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. The Brumback Library in Van Wert, Ohio claims to be the first county library in US.
Melvil Dewey instituted a traveling library system for upstate 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.