First Public Libraries

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The Ray Memorial Library in Franklin, Massachusetts. Courtesy of the Nevins Memorial Library via Digital Commonwealth.

In addition to membership libraries, Benjamin Franklin also played a role in the development of the first lending library. In 1790, Franklin donated a collection of books to a Massachusetts town that named itself after him. Though the town asked Franklin to donate a bell, he determined that "sense" was more important than "sound." Franklin residents voted for those donated books to be freely available for town members, creating the nation's first public library.

Public libraries began spreading in earnest in American towns and cities after the Civil War. These lending libraries are defined as board-governed and tax-funded instead of operated under a subscription model. Most importantly, they are open to all, do not charge for their services, and focus on serving the needs of the general public.

The first totally tax-supported library was established in Peterborough, New Hampshire, in 1833. While there were many other libraries that met new public-oriented milestones—like the Darby Free Library in Pennsylvania, which has been in continuous service since 1793—the first large public library was the Boston Public Library, founded in 1848. Boston Public Library opened in 1854 and all Massachusetts residents could borrow from its collection, which began with 16,000 volumes.