What is the oldest public library in the United States? That question is not as straightforward as it appears. Several of the earliest libraries have a claim, but, as it turns out, most of them are not actually public libraries.
Here are some of the claimants:
The Sturgis Library in Cape Cod, Massachusetts occupies a building constructed in 1644. It is both the oldest library building in the US and the oldest extant building where worship services were held regularly. The library itself started much later.
The Darby Free Library in Darby, Pennsylvania claims to be the oldest continuously operating library in the US. Actually, the Library Company of Philadelphia, eleven years older, holds that distinction. More about that one later, but neither was established as a public library as we understand the term today. They were subscription libraries.
The Redwood Library and Atheneum in Newport, Rhode Island, likewise started as a subscription library. It has the distinction of operating out if its original building (erected in 1747). That building is also the first one ever built specifically to house a library.
The town of Franklin, Massachusetts, named for Benjamin Franklin, asked Franklin to donate a bell for the steeple of the projected town hall building. Franklin chose to donate books instead. They arrived in 1786. After acrimonious debate, the town decided that anyone who lived in Franklin could borrow them. The ordinance passed in 1790, and so Franklin claims the honor of the first American public library. But it was a collection of books with no building to house it for more than a century. I have been unable to find any early administrative or financial details. It was not supported with taxes.
Some even earlier libraries
Wealthy men in the American colonies owned books. In Massachusetts, for example, William Brewster owned almost 400 books. John Winthrop, Jr. owned about 1,000 and Cotton Mather about 3,000. Some of them, when they died, bequeathed their personal libraries to found more publicly accessible libraries.
In 1638, John Harvard left half of his estate and a library of 400 books to the recently founded Newtowne College, which was soon renamed Harvard College. That one, of course, never pretended to be a public library. It is the earliest American academic library. Eventually other colleges besides Harvard established libraries. The size of their collections became a source of pride, but the libraries themselves had little administrative support and no dedicated staff. A member of the faculty supervised the library, usually without any extra pay
Robert Keayne, a prominent and controversial businessman, wrote one of the longest wills ever in 1653. He bequeathed money to build a Town House and left his books to be housed there as a publicly accessible library. John Oxenbridge left his books to the library in 1673. Again, administrative and financial details are lacking. When the library was destroyed by fire in 1747, no one stepped forward to replace it.
Other cities besides Boston established publicly accessible libraries that persisted for a while and then ceased. They were not necessarily open every day and placed limits on who could use them. They might not have even let patrons remove books from the room that housed them. None of them had a system in place to preserve or maintain these collections. Nor did any have an established system for organizing the collection or adding to it. They probably restricted who could use it. In any case, none count as the oldest public library in the United States because they are no longer extant.
Public libraries and their antecedents
A modern public library is a collection owned and housed by a municipality or county and supported by taxes. It is available free of charge for any citizen who wants to use it. It deliberately collects material that appeals to a wide segment of the population, both for educational pursuits and entertainment. Typically, the collection comprises printed materials (books, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, etc.) and much more.
Many of the earliest libraries collected such items as manuscripts, art objects, and scientific specimens and tools. As newer technologies such as photographs, audio and video recordings, and various electronic media became available, libraries started collecting them.
We can see four kinds of libraries as forerunners of the modern public library.
In the 1690s, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Bray recruited a number of Anglican clergymen to move to the American colonies. Many of them could not afford to buy books, and Bray believed that books were necessary to promote learning—and especially the doctrines of the Anglican church—on this side of the Atlantic.
In 1697, he published a pamphlet to promote the then radical idea of establishing collections of circulating books in local parishes, supervised by their ministers and schoolmasters. His plan included procedures to ensure that the books would be returned to the library and not become anyone’s private property. These included distinctive bindings marked with the church’s name.
The first such collection, with more than a thousand titles, arrived in Annapolis, Maryland in 1697. Bray selected and financed similar but smaller collections for parishes from New England to South Carolina.
A historical plaque in Charleston, South Carolina claims, with some exaggeration, that its Bray collection became “the first public lending library in the American colonies.” In part, the assertion is justified by an act of the South Carolina General Assembly in 1712 that, among other things, declared the Anglican Church as the colony’s official religion and established what remained of the collection as a provincial library.
Some churches of other denominations established their own libraries.
Social libraries (subscription libraries)
Social libraries started as a way for individuals to pool their resources to buy books that none of them could afford on their own and that all of them could use. The Library Company of Philadelphia, started in 1731 by a social club established by Benjamin Franklin, is the first and best known example. In such a library, members bought stock in the company, which was used to purchase new books, scientific equipment, and other items of interest. One member would be designated the librarian, which mostly meant that he kept the collection at his own home.
Eventually, though, the collection became too big for any librarian’s house. It moved to the building now known as Independence Hall and operates to this day as a non-circulating research library.
Other cities had their own social libraries, which may or may not have allowed non-members to use or even borrow their materials. Most of these social libraries, some with “athenaeum” in their name, catered to the wealthy.
The Boston Mercantile Library started in 1820 for the sake of the working classes. The idea of a mercantile library caught on. For example, the Mercantile Library of Cincinnati was established in 1835 by a group of merchants who wanted to “democratize knowledge.” It was established for the sake of scholarship and self-improvement. It did not approve of fiction in its collection for decades.
Like the social subscription libraries for the wealthy, mercantile libraries operated for the sake of their members, not the general public
Horace Mann, inspired by the Franklin Public Library, conceived the idea of the school library along with other seminal ideas about public education. As secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, he raised the question, once we educate children, what will they be able to read? Eventually the legislature approved school district libraries that would also provide reading material for adults.
Mann’s work inspired similar educational reforms—and school libraries—in other states.
Circulating libraries (or rental libraries)
Circulating libraries, or rental libraries, operated as businesses. Therefore, they catered to public demand. The first one opened in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1725. The first English circulating library followed in 1728. William Rind opened the first American circulating library in Annapolis, Maryland in 1762.
Unlike any other libraries of the time, they rented out novels and other bestselling books. Therefore, they had a bad reputation among those who valued scholarship and looked down on what seemed like trashy entertainment.
I have not gotten access to much information about circulating libraries. As businesses, they would likely go out of business sooner or later, but anyone who thought he could make money from operating a library could start one. Some publishers operated circulating libraries. So did booksellers or even stores that sold merchandise unrelated to printed material. Commercial circulating libraries remained important institutions for more than a century.
So what is the earliest public library?
Two libraries have legitimate claim to be the oldest public library in the United States in the full sense defined earlier.
The town library of Petersborough, New Hampshire was founded almost by accident in 1833. The state had planned to start a state college and collected taxes for it, but the effort failed. Therefore, the state distributed the funds to the towns with the stipulation that they be used for educational purposes. Petersborough already had a subscription library, but it decided to use the tax windfall to create a town-owned library funded by taxes. It also established a committee to oversee it.
The Peterborough Town Library thus became the first free, tax-supported public library not only in the United States, but anywhere in the world. New Hampshire did not pass a law specifically authorizing towns to fund libraries with tax money until 1849.
The collection was housed successively in the general store, the post office, and the pharmacy that occupied the former Town Hall. The library did not have its own building until 1893.
The Boston Public Library, which opened in 1854, is therefore the oldest institution in the United States intentionally founded as a public library. Years of planning went into it.
Early history of the Boston Public Library
In 1825, Boston had 36 subscription libraries, 10 circulating libraries, and 15 school libraries. The combined collections comprised 114,683 volumes, which probably included a lot of duplication. It seemed good to combine them into one institution under one roof. Nothing came of the idea except for the inventory that counted the libraries in Boston and their holdings.
The town of Orange appropriated money to start a public library in 1846, but the state had not yet passed any enabling legislation. Laws passed in 1849 and 1851 made tax-supported public libraries possible. The Boston city auditor’s report of 1849-1850 notes the first expenditure for books and other expenses for the library.
By 1852, the city owed almost 4,000 books. At that time, the city council authorized creation of a library board of trustees. After some discussion, the board decided that the collection should include both scholarly books and a more popular collection to attract patrons from the general public.
One Joshua Bates agreed to donate $50,000 to purchase more books on the condition that the city provide a building and operating expenses. He insisted that the building be an ornament for the city with a large enough reading room to accommodate tables for 100-150 people and be free for everyone to use. Another townsman, Jonathan Phillips, donated an additional $10,000.
The library trustees began to search for a suitable location for a library building. In the meantime, they rented two rooms in the Adams Schoolhouse. The library there opened to the public on March 20, 1854. The circulation department was up and running by May 2. Construction on the library building began in 1855. It opened in 1857.
Financial history of the Boston Public Library / Mildred Catherine O’Connor (M.A. thesis: Boston University, 1944)
How did public libraries get started? / The Straight Dope. January 17, 2006
South Carolina’s first public lending library in 1698 / Charleston County Public Library