Sunday, November 13, 2011
Newark's Transition to a Free Public Library
America's transition from fee based membership and subscription libraries to free (to the user) public libraries occurred over a number of decades starting in the mid-19th century. Sometimes membership libraries ceased to exist because their support base or governance was inadequate. In some instances they transferred their assets to newly created free public libraries, and in others they continued to coexist with public libraries for variable periods of time. A few survive even today. In Newark, New Jersey, there was a rocky transition from the Newark Library (originally the Newark Library Association), a membership library established in 1847, to the Newark Free Library Association (now the Newark Public Library) established in 1887. In 1889 the Newark Library agreed to lease space in their building to the Free Library and to allow the use of their collection. However, this all broke down when the librarian of the Free Library was discovered stamping the Newark Library's books with the Free Library's ownership stamp. This resulted in the Newark Library requiring the Free Library to buy its collection. A Library Journal article in the August, 1889 issue (pages 354-355) discusses the controversy, and there is a wonderful reprint of comments of a correspondent to in the Call newspaper about the situation. The correspondent wrote: "The Newark Library Association was chartered by the New Jersey Legislature in 1847 for the purpose of providing a library for the people of our city. It was never an aggressive institution, and how it has managed to hold together so long is a wonder to me. It has been moribund for years. Now the life has left the body and nothing remains except the bare bones of a library, some real estate, and some books, but no vitality. It long ago came under the control of a few very amiable and agreeable gentlemen, who met at the library building occasionally, but for many years they left the management of the institution to another gentleman of most estimable character, who had no fitness for the position and no appreciation of the wants of a great public institution." I wonder how he really felt. The librarian for the Free Library who started all the commotion was Frank P. Hill who was one of the most prominent librarians of his era and after a very successful stint in Newark went on to direct the Brooklyn Public Library. I'm not sure when the Newark Library officially ceased to exist, but some of the brief histories of the Newark Public Library that I've seen imply that there was a smooth transition from the membership library to the free public library, which it certainly was not. The advertisement for the Newark Library Association which is shown above is from an 1885 publication.