I spent much of this past year inside libraries researching the library system itself, and I now have a brand new appreciation for the institution. This research was for my master’s thesis, which explored the history of one small branch library in Boston. In this summer series, I will share some of the interesting knowledge I have gained about the role of public libraries in community development.
First, a brief history lesson on the public library system in America, specifically Boston:
The urban public library is, for the most part, a Boston invention founded in 1852. Other important early public libraries include the Enoch Pratt Free Library of Baltimore (1882), the Free Library of Philadelphia (1891), and the New York Public Library (1895), but they were all founded after the Boston Public Library. The foundation of the Boston Public Library was built upon uniquely American theories of the purpose of libraries: that they should serve as centers for community education and that they should be as open, accessible, and democratic as possible.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, American cities were growing exponentially, in population and in wealth, and many port cities like Boston were overwhelmed with new immigrants fleeing lives of poverty, hunger, and oppression. Thousands of new immigrants arrived into Boston during the decades before and after the Civil War, the majority from Ireland, and others from Italy, Germany, Greece, China, Eastern Europe, and Russia. In 1800, the population of Boston was roughly at 25,000; in 1855, after the Irish Famine, it had reached 50,000 people, and in 1875, the population had grown to approximately 341,000. More than two-thirds of the city’s population was foreign-born. Social reformers struggled to understand the needs of the new city inhabitants, many of whom came from rural backgrounds. This changing demographic history of Boston is significant because it highlights the motives behind the founding of the Boston Public Library.
This is a photo of a mobile book van in Boston’s Chinatown on Harrisson Avenue in the 1900s. Notice the sign and shelved books at the back of the car. The sign reads: “Why Read Good Books? Learn More” and is accompanied by a series of flags representing all the immigrants that live in the neighborhood. Source: Boston Public Library.
Public libraries were supposed to help new immigrants and the native working classes adjust and assimilate to urban American society, as well as prevent potential political unrest and instability. The Boston elite believed that these civic institutions would serve as a tool in preventing crime and violence. The late nineteenth century was a period of civil and economic turbulence in Boston, and there was a general fear of potential rioting from the growing foreign-born underclass. Furthermore, troublesome political ideologies such as anarchism and socialism were becoming common conversation topics among poor workers and city officials and social workers felt that public libraries offered the necessary education of traditional morals and values to suppress these potentially dangerous new ways of thinking. The public library system could help cultivate informed and responsible citizenship. Libraries offered the opportunity to every citizen to educate him or herself about politics, economics, history, and culture, and to hopefully use that knowledge to “participate in democratic society through intelligent voting” (1852 Trustees of the Boston Public Library).
In 1867, as the annexation of new neighborhoods into Boston was taking place, and the Public Library Examining Committee presented the idea of extending the usefulness of the library via the development of branches and delivery stations throughout the City. The concept of a delivery station started in Dorchester (Boston annexed the neighborhood in 1870), where a storekeeper offered to host a library attendant a few times a week during the late afternoon. The librarian would then issue library cards and collect orders for and deliver books. The Committee collected data about how many residents from each neighborhood visited the main branch, and chose to place smaller branches and delivery stations in areas that had the least number of users.
Mobile libraries, as well as mobile librarians were also becoming popular in urban settings during the turn of the century. For example, a librarian would venture into lower-income, oftentimes immigrant neighborhoods with specific reading material about good citizenship, and find a child to whom s/he could confidently lend these resources. The assumption was that the child would not only read the books, but also share them with family and friends in the community. In a week or so, the librarian would return to the tenements to retrieve the books, discuss them with the children, and offer another collection for them to borrow.
I think this history of the library demonstrates that the changing function and mission of the establishment is a direct testament to the value system or motives of those responsible for the provision of the library such as city, state, and federal government officials, and other benefactors. In this series, I will explore how the role of the public library continues to change in society, and what this institution means to different users, providers, and communities. If you have a story to share about a library, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aditi Mehta completed her Master in City Planning degree from MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning in May 2010. For her thesis, she researched the history of Boston’s Chinatown branch library, and the present-day community movement to reopen this branch. Her other interests include affordable housing, participatory planning processes, and photography.