Today’s American public library has certain fundamental characteristics: 1) it is supported by tax dollars; 2) it is governed by a board specifically appointed to serve the public interest; 3) it is open to all; 4) it is voluntary; 5) it is established by state law; and 6) it provides services without charge to the user (Rubin, 2004). Those characteristics emerged during the free public library movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
There is debate as to when the first public library was founded. Some credit the library in Peterborough, New Hampshire in 1834 because “there for the first time an institution was founded by a town with the deliberate purpose of creating a free library that would be open without restriction to all classes of the community—a library supported from the beginning by public funds” (Shera, 1965). Generally, the Boston Public Library, established in 1854, is given the honor of being America’s first public library (id.).
There are several factors that led to the free public library movement. Within the library community, efforts were made to found public libraries and professionalize librarianship. Under the guidance of Dewey and other library luminaries, the American Library Association (“ALA”) was formed in 1876. (American Library Association, 2008, History). In the ALA Charter of 1879, its members pledged themselves:
with the intention of forming a corporation under the name of the American Library Association for the purpose of promoting the library interests of the country by exchanging views, reaching conclusions, and inducing cooperation in all departments of bibliothecal science and economy; by disposing the public mind to the founding and improving of libraries; and by cultivating good will among its own members (id.).
Concurrent with the professionalization of librarianship, arose three other forces that formed the free public library movement: philanthropy, women’s voluntary associations, and “library laws.”
Between 1886 and 1919, Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated more than $40 million to build 1,679 new library buildings in throughout America. Carnegie only paid for the library building. The local community was required to supply the library with books and levy public taxes to maintain the library and its staff. To that end, the women’s voluntary associations that flourished after the American Civil War, worked tirelessly in their communities collecting books and raising money to establish free public libraries. Women, through these associations, engaged in local politics, under the guise of civic betterment. It is estimated that between 75 and 80 percent of public libraries were started by local women’s clubs. State legislation authorizing cities to levy and collect taxes for the purpose of establishing and maintaining free public libraries was the final necessary element in the confluence of events that resulted in thousands of new free public libraries throughout the country between 1886 and 1920.