Introduction

View item information

The Boston Public Library seal, 1889. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library via Digital Commonwealth.

Before public libraries spread across the United States after the Revolutionary War, people were looking for outlets to access and discuss literature. During the Enlightenment, these came in the form of literary salons, which gained popularity in France and Italy. Salons were spaces for conversations about art, politics, and literature. They were particularly empowering for women, who had been barred from formal learning spaces and now had a place to exchange ideas, read and share their writing, and debate. Decades later, libraries offered a similar opportunity for women to enter the workforce and academia in new ways, too.

With the rise of non-religious texts and literacy rates in the 1700s, private book clubs among wealthy men evolved into subscription libraries. Subscription, or membership, libraries were funded by membership fees or donations, with collections accessible only to paying members. While today there are fewer than twenty membership libraries in existence in the US—many of which focus on special collections or rare material, rather than a varied book selection—from the late 1700s to the mid-1800s, they sprang up in cities across the country. The first of these libraries was formed in Philadelphia, under the direction of Benjamin Franklin, and would come to be known as the Library Company.