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HomeFeaturesA Biography of the American Public Library

A Biography of the American Public Library

How African-Americans and women paved the way for the modern public library

American public libraries have long been a gathering place for communities across the nation, but they haven’t always been welcoming to women and people of color.

The precursor to the public library, the “social library,” dates back to the 1700’s when it served as a venue for wealthy, white men to exchange books and ideas. In 1731, inventor and politician Benjamin Franklin founded one of the first social libraries. Known as the Library Company, it did not permit women or people of color to join. Upper-class white women responded by establishing their own book clubs. They used these clubs as a platform to lobby the government for education reform, conservation, juvenile justice, and voting rights. They did not, however, permit Jews, blacks, and working-class women to join. Subsequently, those groups began establishing their own clubs. In 1896, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs was founded and became heavily involved in anti-lynching and pro-literacy campaigns. It was also a major proponent of public libraries.

Soon, libraries were being constructed all over the country. Businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, commonly referred to as the “patron saint of public libraries,” donated approximately $60 million to the construction of libraries both in the states and abroad. That money, however, was not distributed evenly across communities. Libraries in black communities were often smaller in size and housed fewer books. Civil rights activists saw the disparity in funding for white and black libraries as an opportunity to advocate for equal rights, staging a number of sit-ins at whites-only libraries.

Public libraries were ultimately desegregated with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Since then, despite a lack of federal funding, public libraries have served as a safe space for people from all walks of life to learn and to engage with their fellow citizens.

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