The Checkered Past of Public Libraries in America

Well, my goodness. I just read a fascinating and highly recommended article entitled A History of the American Public Library by Ariel Aberg-Riger, and I learned a great deal about libraries that I didn’t know previously. Some of the facts below are profoundly disappointing, but in an odd way, they give me hope. Because if our libraries can emerge from their dark past to become the amazing institutions that they are now, then perhaps there is hope for our government as well. Fingers crossed.

I’ve always known that one of the very first libraries in America was started by Ben Franklin in 1731. What I didn’t know was that this could hardly have been considered a public library. You had to pay an annual fee, so it was basically a collection for Franklin and his rich white male cronies. Women and African Americans weren’t welcome, and the working poor couldn’t afford a membership. This makes me think rather less of Ben. As enlightened as we’d like to think he is, without a doubt he was a product of his times.

In the wake of Ben’s library, I was pleased to see that women’s clubs cropped up as well, until I discovered that these, too, were exclusively for rich white women. They claimed to believe in the importance of having access to books, but they kept out Jewish, black, and working-class women.

So other libraries were established, each one every bit as exclusionary as the first. There were libraries for people of color, for example, and Jewish libraries. But women did seem to advocate public access to libraries long before men did. Funding was an issue, though, until Andrew Carnegie took up the torch and donated 60 million toward library construction.

It wasn’t really until the turn of the last century that libraries became truly public, but they still had to contend with segregation to a shocking degree. Many civil rights sit ins took place in libraries for that very reason.

Now libraries are a source of reliable information, internet access, education, and community gathering places, and all these services are basically free to all. That’s why I love libraries so much. Knowledge is power.

So naturally, Trump is trying to cut federal funding for libraries. Because he’s a man of the people. Sigh. Please support your public libraries, folks. They’re the last truly democratic institutions that we have, and it was a long and winding road to get them to that place.

Carnegie Library Dallas Oregon

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