All Commentary
Wednesday, September 1, 1976

Why Public Libraries?

The next time a proposal for increased property taxes is put forth in your community to pay for library services, ask yourself if we really need public libraries.

Most librarians, as well as the people who use public libraries, consider it a proper function of government to provide library services free of charge. Public libraries had their beginnings just when the idea of educating the masses through public education became popular. In 1850, the city of Boston proposed the use of public funds to establish a library. In the forefront of this move was George Ticknor, a respected member of the Boston aristocracy.

Ticknor believed in the library’s potential as a means of restraining the “dangerous classes” and inhibiting the chances of unscrupulous politicians who would lead the ignorant astray, which explains his insistence that the library be as popular in appeal as possible.1

However, the ignorant do not use public libraries and, to this day, still elect politicians of dubious qualifications.

The public library movement grew at a steady pace with the aid of Andrew Carnegie’s program to dispose of his surplus wealth by providing free public library buildings to communities which would stock them with books and maintain them in perpetuity with tax funds. There was a notable effort on the part of enterprising communities to secure Carnegie library buildings. Nearly 2,000 such structures were made possible in this way.2

During 30 years after 1865 the Carnegie gifts ran their course, and the free public library became an object of pride throughout the land. It was distinctly an American institution.3

The argument in favor of public libraries is that they provide a place to obtain information and recreational reading that the users cannot afford on their own. The taxpayers underwrite the costs.

The “Public Library” which we are to consider is established by state laws, is supported by local taxation or voluntary gifts, is managed as a public trust, and every citizen of the city or town which maintains it has an equal share in its privileges of reference and circulation.4

But is there any public library which serves the entire public which pays for its upkeep? A study was made in 1950 of the users of public libraries. It found that:

Most of the book reading is done by a small minority of the people. More than half the adults of the library live within a mile of a public library yet only one fifth of them visited a public library during the year preceding this survey, and only a tenth averaged as much as a visit a month.5

A 1975 Gallup survey of adult use of the public library came to similar conclusions.

… only a substantial minority of American adults makes regular use of the public library … The better educated, white collar and professional classes and the young use the public library more than their opposites. Book lending services are seen as the most common function of the public library.6

Public libraries, like other public services, were established by well-meaning citizens who assumed that the “public” wanted these services and were willing to pay taxes to support them. But there are those who disagree. Writing in Library Journal, Michael Harris questions the notion that the public library was established in answer to public demand:

It is commonly believed that the origins of the public library movement testify to the power of popular democracy in this country. And yet, everyone knows that historically only a very small portion of the eligible users have ever crossed the threshold of a public library.

The First, in 1833 Petersborough, New Hampshire was the first town to pass a public library law in 1833. In 1849 New Hampshire passed the first statewide act providing for the establishment of public libraries. Up until 1833 the only libraries in existence were private university libraries, church libraries, society and subscription libraries, and mercantile and mechanics libraries.

The users of these libraries were students, the clergy and their parishioners, clerks and apprentices, and those people who were interested enough in furthering their education to join a subscription or society library.

Prior to 1850, public tax supported libraries as we know them today were nearly nonexistent. The nearest approximation were the subscription and social libraries which were voluntary associations of individuals for the purpose of buying books to be jointly owned by all those who belonged.8

In the introduction to the 1876 report the Bureau of Education acknowledges the importance of the private libraries in existence.

It will, of course, be understood that no attempt has been made to collect information respecting private libraries. While a multitude of these libraries exist, thousands of which are of great value, some rivaling in completeness, in special departments of knowledge, even the collections of leading public libraries, it would be impracticable, if otherwise expedient, for the general government to gather and present reasonably complete and satisfactory information respecting them.9

The 1870 census attempted this task, and although acknowledging that its figures were not complete, estimated that of 163,353 libraries containing 44,539,184 volumes 107,673 were private libraries containing 25,571,503 volumes.¹º

Had public libraries not materialized, I do not doubt that private libraries would have been able to handle all the needs of their users.

All in all by 1850, 1064 libraries had been established in New England alone. In the services they gave, these institutions followed modern library practice; they bought the books their members wanted, allowed them to be circulated for a month or so, and instituted fines for violation of the rules. In their later development they branched out into special libraries for mercantile clerks, mechanics, children, ladies, lyceum audiences, farmers, factory workers, lawyers, and music lovers. This was a library system of a sort, and it is probable that almost every serious reader could get access to what books were in his community.¹¹

Many of these libraries went out of business for various reasons. Some were forced to close because, due to low literacy rates and few leisure hours, there was a limit to the clientele they could attract, and could not afford to stay open. Others, after 1850, could not afford to compete with tax-supported libraries and were absorbed into the public library system. However, while they existed, they fulfilled the services their users required of them. Why then public libraries?

Public Libraries in Trouble

Today the public libraries are in a crisis. The 1960′s, in which funds were liberally handed out for all kinds of library projects, have been replaced by the 1970′s, in which many municipalities are on the edge of bankruptcy. All across the U.S. the taxpayer has had enough. The taxpayers are resisting higher taxes at a time when inflation is increasing the cost of government services. All agencies of government are competing for the same money, and libraries are on the bottom of the agency totem pole. Although everyone is taxed to support the library, only a small percentage use it regularly. Unlike the schools, the libraries have no law that compels people to use their services.

Library budgets are being slashed, personnel fired, and branches closed. Librarians, trying to negotiate the labyrinth of government to lobby for more tax money, are finding the whole process frustrating and tedious. Marilyn Gell describes the process in Library Journal.

In seeking funding for a cooperative library project, for instance, it is necessary not only to obtain a consensus from the libraries involved, but agency approval as well. The process can sometimes take several months, involve several policy committees composed of numerous politicians, and can be an exhausting experience.12

And no matter how valid the arguments for your project, or how well they are documented, who you know is usually more important than what you know; this is how things get done in the political arena. “Access to those individuals who interpret policy is valuable indeed.”¹³

As an example of the irrationality of government policy, the following appeared in a New York Daily News editorial:

City Hall geniuses have an Alice in Wonderland explanation for a decision to close three existing libraries while proceeding with construction of five new ones.

Their argument is that the actions are unrelated; capital funds are available for building new facilities, while the padlocking of already-operating libraries is dictated by lack of expense-budget money for staffing.

But once the projected new branches are completed they will have to be manned. And if the city can’t find the money to run the libraries now, where will it get the dough to operate five others later on?

Or shouldn’t we expect our officials to look ahead?14

A Shortsighted View

As evidenced by the state of the economy today, we see that government officials do not look beyond the short range effects of their actions, that is, beyond the next election. Any business that tried to operate along these lines would find itself quickly bankrupt. The only thing that keeps local governments from going out of business is their supposedly unlimited source of funds: taxes. But the climate is changing, the money reservoir is beginning to dry up. If librarians will look to the future they must realize that they cannot continue depending on government funds. What is the alternative?

Assuming no public libraries, where will people go to obtain reading matter for entertainment and information? Since 1850 there has been a revolution in the printing industry. Due to higher literacy, and more leisure time, and a large class of people willing and able to buy books, there is a market for hundreds of thousands of books in inexpensive editions. Back then, books were few and far between, expensive to produce and purchase. Nowadays people do not have to be wealthy to have their own personal library. The paperback reprint industry has brought many books within everyone’s reach. For more expensive hardcover books, the needs of readers can be taken care of by rental libraries. Some bookstores now have rental libraries as part of their operation. Without public libraries, bookstores and other service-type businesses would fill the vacuum for providing recreational reading.

Some libraries now produce cable TV programs. It is possible to reverse this trend and have cable TV companies operating libraries as a service to their subscribers, with the subscribers and the library being in the same relationship as anon-line terminal user to a computer. The reference services of public libraries can be converted to profit-making information services. With the rise of computerized on-line data services which charge their users for the information they provide, this is already becoming a reality. Today the demand for current information has mushroomed and only computers will be able to handle the increased traffic. On-line terminals are becoming a familiar part of a library’s reference department. Public libraries cannot afford to provide these services without charging their users for them.

The Economics of Fact-Finding

Information is valuable and scarce. In a world of ever-increasing dependence on information it is unrealistic, therefore, to insist on providing such a good free to all comers. Eugene Garfield, chairman of the Information Industry Association, testifying before the National Commission on Library and Information Science, said:

User based charges must inevitably prevail… information is the result of economic effort and its costs must be borne by someone. The depression type psychology that dominated library training cultivated the concept that library service should be free … anything you get for nothing is of questionable value. Charge, and your service is better appreciated … The existence of an already large information industry supports the assertion that the buyer of information is prepared to pay for those services he learns to respect.15

There are many private libraries already in existence to meet the needs of scholarly researchers. The Henry E. Huntington Library in California was established as a free public research library open to qualified scholars for investigation and reference use and supported entirely by an initial endowment by Henry Huntington plus grants and gifts by others over the years.

Another example is the Henry Clay Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., housing a collection of the social and intellectual history of England from the invention of printing to about 1700, open to all scholars who have a serious problem requiring use of the materials.

Add to these the numerous private college and university libraries housing special collections of use to the researcher, from the small college with a history of its community to Harvard University, which rivals in size the national libraries of Great Britain and France.

One library of special note is the Boston Athenaeum, founded in Boston in 1807 by selling shares in the library as well as annual and lifetime subscriptions. In 1853 it successfully fought off a move to incorporate it into the Boston Public Library and today is still an important private institution. In 1907 the Athenaeum celebrated its centennial.

Throughout all its various changes, the Athenaeum has represented what was best in Boston. The “golden age” of New England literature grew with it and ever within its walls. Its traditions are a part of life, and are passed on from father to son. Because its ideals have been high the Athenaeum has appealed to men who lead as well as those who follow. And with their continued support success in the future seems assured.16

There are also special libraries for all types of non-fiction materials provided by various corporations and trade associations which will provide answers to questions asked of them and will open their libraries to people doing research on their special subjects.

Improved Service

Private libraries would be more responsive to the needs of their users. Instead of being open during the day only, as is now the case in many libraries, these libraries would be open when the users needed them, nights and weekends, and early in the morning. As was the case in the early 1800′s, special libraries would develop to serve the needs of special classes of users. A children’s library run by librarians specializing in children’s librarianship; a local fiction society catering to the wants of its members; there are many possibilities. People are so used to depending on the government to get things done they forget how to do things for themselves.

Now is the time to start considering an alternative to public libraries. A first step is to have public libraries charge fees for their services. The next step is to offer the libraries for sale, preferably intact, after passing a law that prevents the use of government funds for the establishment or maintenance of libraries.

The next time a proposal for increased property taxes is put forth in your community to pay for library services, ask yourself if we really need public libraries.


1 Harris, Michael, “The Purpose of the American Public Library, A Revisionist Interpretation of History,” Library Journal, 98:2510, Sept. 15, 1974.

2 Lester, Robert M., “The Carnegie Corporation and the Library Renaissance in the South,” Wilson Library Bulletin, 31:255-9, Nov. 1956.

3 Ibid.

4 U.S. Bureau of Education, Public Libraries in the U.S.: 1876 Report. Government Printing Office, 1876, p. 147.

5 Campbell, Angus and Metner, Charles A., Public Use of the Library: and other sources of information, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1950, p. 

6 Eberhart, W. Lyle, “A Closer Look: Gallup Survey of American Adults Assesses the Role of Libraries in America,” American Libraries, 7:206, April 1976.

7 Harris, Michael, op. cit., p. 2509.

8 Harris, Michael, ed., Reader in American Library History, NCR Microcard, Washington, D.C., 1971, p. 45.

9 U.S. Bureau of Education, op. cit., p. xvii.

10 US. Census of Population and Social Statistics, 1870. p. 472, 473.

11 Garcau, Oliver, The Public Library in the Political Process, Columbia University Press, N.Y. 1949, p. 16.

12 Gell, Marilyn, “The Politics of Cooperation,” Library Journal, 98:3230, Nov. 1973.

¹³ Ibid., p. 3229.

14 “Two Different Worlds,” New York Daily News, Oct. 17, 1974, p. 61.

15 “HA Urges User Fees For Libraries in NCLIS Testimony,” American Libraries, 4:335, June 1973.

16 The Athenaeum Centenary: The influence and history of the Boston Athenaeum 1807-1907, by the staff of the Boston Athenaeum, Gregg Press, Boston, 1972, reprint of 1907 ed., p. 56.

  • Mr. Schneider obtained his Master’s degree in Library and Information Science from St. Johns University. He is a member of the State Committee of the Free Libertarian Party of New York.