Backwards and Forwards

Librarian on horseback

Photo Credit:  Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection, Kentucky Digital Library

For many folks, the word “library” conjures up a quiet building full of books and periodicals, perhaps offering a place for community activities, and branching out into digital media in recent years.  This image of libraries as conservative organizations, slow to respond to changes, slow to offer new services, is very well-established.  And entirely wrong.

Public libraries themselves were an innovation.  While the famed library of Alexandria was (probably) not open to the public, two sister libraries (probably) were, at the contemporary Serapeum and Cesarion temples.  Rome had some public libraries, often in the form of reading rooms built as part of public baths (with both Greek and Latin scrolls, if you were lucky).  But public libraries really came into their own after Gutenberg’s 1468 invention of the printing press made the mass production of books possible.

The first public library—the Biblioteca Malastiana in Cesena, Italy—appeared about a decade after Gutenberg’s invention and is still open today.  Chetham’s Library in Manchester, England, opened in 1653 as the first public library in the English-speaking world, and is also open today.  The next innovation?  Public libraries supported by taxes.  The first of these was the Peterborough Town Library in Peterborough, New Hampshire, established in 1833.  It, too, is still open, as a functioning public library.  

The next set of innovations came from Pittsburgh, through Andrew Carnegie’s library program.  The Carnegie libraries were the first to allow patrons direct access to books (open stacks), as opposed to cages and other controls that limited patron’s ability to work directly with the collections.  This important innovation offered the power of choice by letting the public browse the collections and discover new material on their own.  Carnegie’s libraries also often included non-book-related functions, integrating facilities like theaters, bowling alleys, gymnasiums, and swimming pools. In at least one case, the Carnegie Library of Homestead became the home base for semi-pro teams and Olympians in football, wrestling, swimming, and track.  Carnegie’s innovations extended to social work as well; he funded a number of public libraries for African Americans across the US, at a time when they were still legally prohibited from visiting “public” libraries (particularly in the south).  

The mix of services offered by libraries changes over time.  For example, during the Depression, an army of women on horseback delivered books to people throughout Kentucky’s scattered communities.  (While you should read all the links at bottom, you need to click this one right now, because the pictures are amazing:  Computers started to appear in libraries during the 1980s and today, public computers are often supplemented with wifi access, printers, scanners, and more.  Community gardens are becoming popular (again) at public libraries across the country, as are programs for lending tools, artwork, and musical instruments.  Libraries in university settings are changing their service mix as well, offering study spaces, access to advanced technology resources, support for researchers, and more, all of which are future topics for this blog.  

Oh, and our name?  In 1974 in Ebla, Syria, archeologists found the remnant of an organized collection of tablets that were dated between 2500 and 2250 BCE - the world’s first library.  

Further reading:

by Doug Blair, Director of Digital Strategy

Tags: History, Nonfiction, See all tags

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