Why do public libraries exist?

Page Memorial Library, Aberdeen, NC, from The Pilot https://www.thepilot.com/news/aberdeen-checks-out-idea-of-a-new-public-library/article_5306b892-dd11-11e3-9b42-0017a43b2370.html

You might find it interesting to read about this particular public library.

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

Why? Additional thoughts Books or people? Camden County, NC

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. 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.

  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
Why? Additional thoughts Books or people? Camden County, NC
“Libraries are not about books, they’re about people ...”

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.

Do we agree?

Why? Additional thoughts Books or people? Camden County, NC

With a (perhaps) clear understanding of why we think a public library should exist, we will do an exercise in planning for a brand new public library for a particular place.

Acquaint yourselves with Camden County, NC. According to their Wikipedia entry, as of the 2020 United States census, there were 10,355 people, 3,933 households, and 3,154 families residing in the county.

Until recently, Camden County was the only county in North Carolina not to have a public library. We will imagine ourselves to be the planners for this new, built from the ground up, public library.

We will ask ourselves what this new library needs to be and what is going to be its relationship to its community/communities. We will see if we can state our "public library philosophy" in this context.

Why? Additional thoughts Books or people? Camden County, NC

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