Posted July 26th 2010 at 5:35 pm by
in The Library and Society

The Library and Society

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.

Harrison Street_EditSmall 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

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.

6 responses to “The Library and Society”

  1. Sara Copeland says:

    The public library is one of my favorite institutions – as a young bookworm, it was a palace; as a college student, the library was a refuge; as an adult, it is a delight. Are you going to discuss Carnegie libraries in your series? And, did you happen to work with Professor Fogelson on your thesis?

  2. Aditi Mehta says:

    Hi Sara. Thanks so much for your comment. I do plan to discuss Carnegie libraries in my series – stay tuned! Unfortunately, I was not able to connect with Professor Fogelson while at DUSP. Does this series seem to be in line with his work? Larry Vale advised my thesis and Tunney Lee was my reader. I think what I found so fascinating about the history of libraries was how linked the founding of the institution was to immigration and assimilation because now I see libraries more as a place of accommodation for newcomers.

  3. Abby Mehta says:

    Very interesting to learn that immigrant assimilation was the main goal of free libraries! It has certainly evolved to cater to populations across the board today – although still fulfilling the basic needs of education, and remaining a place for community gathering. The appeal has widened by the including entertainment options in multi-media formats at libraries today. I love the picture you have in your Blog!

  4. Laura says:

    Hi Aditi, thanks for this post!

    I used to live in Montreal, where the public library was truly a reflection of the lingustic and cultural diversity of the city. The central branch has a big public language lab with language software and headphones, and the English and French book sections are side by side. I also participated in a library reading group for immigrants to Quebec called “Les Mots Partages” (“Shared Words”). Volunteer Quebecoises led simple French discussions about books by Francophone authors. We participants were American, Chinese, Lebanese, Indian…. It was a wonderful way for us to learn about Quebec culture and literature, and to practice French in a supportive environment! Check it out:,5562135&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL

  5. Christina says:

    I used to go to the library all the time during my undergraduate years because I didn’t have a computer, and because I went to school at a time when all you needed was a book and a quiet space to study for an exam (no powerpoints…). Then came big box bookstores, the personal laptop, and coffee houses with wi-fi and I no longer needed a library. I started going back to the local public library after my son was born one year ago, when I needed a quiet place to study on Saturday afternoons. It turned out of course to be a perfect studying spot as well as a treasure in countless other ways. There are music performances and lectures there regularly, a huge range of children’s activities, and little gems like a magazine swap table and a coupon exchange box. And of course the books! I love having some random book catch my eye and just taking it home for a month and not having some book about yarn or some other random subject end up in the trash a year later. And all of it is free! It’s so nice to go somewhere that isn’t trying to sell you something. The library is as good of an idea today as it was in 1852. Look forward to hearing more in this series.

  6. Alissa says:

    This is a great topic Aditi. I really liked learning the background history, because I think it informs the present which, in some cities, isn’t so pretty. Funding for libraries is being slashed in many cities and there has been so much uproar against these budget cuts. When Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia tried to cut funding for libraries, people in Philadelphia freaked out, formed the Coalition to Save the Libraries, there was a court case, the whole deal. Anyways…it’s interesting to compare the historical perspective with the current situation and it really makes me wonder – what about a library marks it as an expendable city amenity???

  7. […] motive behind a delivery station, especially in immigrant neighborhoods, was to help educate and Americanize foreigners by […]