View item information

A photograph of the auto book return at the Athens Regional Library in Georgia, 1958. Courtesy of the Athens Regional Library via Digital Library of Georgia.

Branching Out

In the nineteenth century, local governments and philanthropists built public libraries centrally in cities, counties, and towns across the country, giving Americans previously unprecedented access to books and other educational materials. As this movement gained momentum, central libraries started thinking critically about how to best serve geographically broader communities. Beginning in the late 1890s, central libraries opened smaller branches in cities to accommodate the explosion of urban population growth. As immigrants set up their own communities away from the more expensive city centers, new branch libraries helped provide services to these new enclaves.

These branch libraries made it possible for patrons to access library collections and services without needing to use public transportation, removing barriers to access like time and cost. Moreover, they brought programming and accessible meeting places to new parts of their growing urban constituency.

The expansion of the branch libraries boomed again in 1962 with the Library Services and Construction Act, which helped fund new library spaces for underserved communities. Now, there are more than 7,500 branch libraries in the United States—almost as many as central public library buildings—providing critical services and collections to patrons.