American Libraries before 1876

By Haynes McMullen | Go to book overview

Chapter 8
Libraries Belonging to
Governmental Agencies

Before 1876, each American library of any kind was likely to serve only persons in a fairly small geographic area. The limited means of communication and travel made it desirable for users to go to the library and return in a short time. So it was to be expected that there would be far more government libraries serving local communities than ones serving larger geographical units. Table 8.1 makes this clear. Even the state and federal territorial libraries were primarily designed to serve persons who lived, temporarily or permanently, at the various capital cities. (For example, the daily hours of service of state libraries were sometimes extended while the legislatures were in session.)


LOCAL GOVERNMENTS

Free Public Libraries. In this study, the term public library will be used in a sense that was not yet common before 1876 but that is widely used today. It will indicate a library that (1) was supported mainly by a unit of local government and (2) was available without charge to a large part of the population in a small geographical area. The term public library was often more broadly used before 1876 to mean any collection available (free or for a fee) to a group of persons larger than a single family. Thus, any library belonging to a college, a society, or a government was considered to be a public library. For the purposes of the present study, it has seemed appropriate to use the more recent, more restrictive definition given above.

The free public libraries that existed in the United States before 1876 can be divided into two distinct groups: (1) ordinary public libraries established by local governments and (2) township libraries established by state governments but intended for at least partial support and control by local officials. In this study, the ordinary public libraries will be considered first for two reasons: (1) They have a longer history, going back to colonial times and continuing to the

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