Monday, July 6, 2009

Free Public Libraries 160 Years

Tomorrow (July 7, 2009) will mark the 160th anniversary of the passage by the State of New Hampshire of the first general free public library law in the United States. The passage of this law in 1849 marked a major milestone in the development of the American public library. The New Hampshire law said in part: "Every public library ... shall be opened to the free use of every inhabitant of the town or city ... for the general diffusion of intelligence among all classes of the community ...". In 1872 Illinois passed a more comprehensive law allowing for the establishment of free public libraries. Both state laws served as models for other states. The New Hampshire version of a public library law was sometimes referred to as the "short" law while the Illinois law was referred to as the "long" law. Although Massachusetts passed a special law authorizing the creation of the Boston Public Library in 1848, it was not until 1851 that a general public library law was passed by that state. New Hampshire is also home of the Peterborough Town Library which is generally considered to be the first tax supported free public library in the nation. It was established in 1833. One of the major short comings of almost all state public library laws is that they are permissive. The establishment of public libraries by a community is normally a voluntary action. The result is that 160 years after the passage of the New Hampshire free public library law there are millions of American without access to free public library service. I'm pleased to have been part of public library development in several states that have achieved universal access to free public library service. Elizabeth W. Stone's American Library Development 1600-1899 (H. W. Wilson Company, 1977), the primary source of this information, provides an excellent summary of early public library development in the United States. The envelope above was mailed in 1889, 40 years after the passage of the New Hampshire public library law.

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