The Public Interest

The Economist's Public Library

Edward C. Banfield

Fall 1983

THE public library is one of those institutions-others include the museum and the park-that are peculiarly American. As such it has special claim on our attention. As invented by Benjamin Franklin, the library was an association of subscribers who found it advantageous to own and use books in common. With one exception, the “free” library did not appear until 1850; then the Boston Public Library quickly became the model that the other large cities copied. The free, or public, library, like the museum and the park and later the settlement house and the slum clearance project, represented an effort by the dominant Protestant elite of the cities to moralize the underlying population.  At first it was regarded as an adjunct to the public school system.  Philanthropists helped launch it, as they did the other institutions whose purpose was essentially the same. Andrew Carnegie, most notably, gave $50 million to build libraries in some 2,500 municipalities between the 1880s and the 1920s. Responsibility for the library, however, was always understood to belong to local government.  While the libraries were being built, changes were occurring that soon raised questions about their use. Technical schools, to which ambitious farm boys could go upon coming to the city, came into being; immigration from Europe was drastically reduced; and public schools became an effective instrument of mass education. When a popular demand for books developed, it was not for the “serious” and “improving” ones that the founders of the libraries had had in mind. Instead it was for westerns, detective stories, best-sellers, and hobby books. The corner drug store found that it could rent bestsellers, but cheap paperbacks soon put the rental libraries out of business; then television replaced reading almost altogether for many people.

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