Why do public libraries exist?

This is what we'll talk about during the session on Wednesday, 27 January 2021.

Readings for the Philosophical Context

We are going to be considering the historical development of the American public library and will read several selections describing some key points in its evolution. As you read, consider how the story portrayed in the text meshes with the story of your local public library. You need only comment on the readings, but feel free to broaden your consideration as you see fit.


Read the first item below. It is a literature review of how scholars have questioned the motives of the people who caused public libraries to exist at all. It is a historical review and it is focused in large part on developments in the South and in North Carolina, but it also does a good job of discussing how complex is the issue and how varied were (and are) the motives of public library supporters.

Read this one and plan to post a consideration about it.
Bergquist, R. (2004) The Philosophical Context

The three additional readings are optional (in that you are not required to post a consideration about them), but both are very interesting and are fuller explorations of topics raised in the first reading. You do not have to post considerations of these two, but you may find you will want to incorporate some of the thoughts in these papers into your required consideration.

  1. Harris, M.H. (1975) The Role of the Public Library in American Life.
    The Harris article is the complete statement of his position of the motives of the original founders of public libraries. You might ask yourselves if the motives he ascribes to them are still prevalent today in your own experience of public library settings.
  2. Garrison, D. (2003) Apostles of Culture, The Public Librarian and American Society, 1876-1920.
    This is a not a link to the book, but you might want to read the author's introduction in which she explains why she undertook to write it. It also includes the forward by Christine Pawley which discusses the reception Dee Garrison received from librarians after her book came out. Again, you might ask yourselves if some of the same things are happening in your own public library settings.
  3. Williams, P. (1988). The American public library and the problem of purpose. New York: Greenwood Press.
    In The public library inquiry 1948-1950 (pp. 65-83 from the book), this is a discussion of an effort to evaluate the role of the public library in American life and the negative reaction to its findings

We'll spend some time discussing these readings in light of current perceptions and realities.

Post session thoughts

We might want to read the National Endowment for the Humanities article entitled The Complicated Role of the Modern Public Library and consider what it has to say.

“Libraries are not about books, they’re about people ...”

Do we agree?

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