the beginnings

One of the comments on a posting this week mentioned that the individual was from a town that was so small it had no street names. That led to a consideration of the differing ways that American communities have decided to name their streets. In the intermountain west, the Mormon settlers laid out their towns in rectangular grids so that each house had a specific grid location rather than a street address. My uncle in Salt Lake City, for example, has a mailing address of "South 2210 East."

By way of comparison, the town of Pinebluff in Moore County, North Carolina, was originally laid out in a grid pattern too. However, the founder of the town wanted to entice people to come to Pinebluff to buy lots for winter cottages. Accordingly, the north-south streets are named for fruits or trees (from the east, they are Peach, Plum, Pear, Grape, Currant, and Cherry, then on to Walnut, Pecan, and Pine). The east-west avenues are, from the north, Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New England, and Boston. Does one discern who he hoped to interest in buying lots in his new town?

The connection to libraries is that, like street names, public libraries have evolved through American history according to local trends and ideas, and not through any over-arching master concept. As our text points out, there have been definitions of what a public library is (see page 2), but not every library that considers itself a public library follows those definitions. In Pinehurst, North Carolina, the Given Memorial Library (which houses the Tufts Archives) perceives of itself as a public library. It offers its resources free of charge to any resident of Moore County. Any resident can get a library card and check out books. But the library is a private institution and receives no tax money, nor any political guidance. It is totally independent.

The Lanier Library in Tryon (Polk County), North Carolina has been in existence since the 1890s. Although it, technically, is a private library because one has to pay a small fee to obtain a library card, it perceives of itself as an independent public library because it provides service to the public of Polk County without taking any of Polk County's tax monies.

What is the common thread here?

It is localism and local interest. American public libraries have been established and supported by local initiative. Sometimes that initiative has been from above (philanthropists and civic-minded organizations prompting the establishment of libraries); more rarely that initiative has come from below when citizens have pushed their political leadership in the direction of providing library service. Examples of the top down approach were discussed in our text in the sections that mentioned the Boston Public Library and the public library history works of Jesse Shera and Sidney Ditzion. Examples of the bottom up approach are not as well celebrated, even though the text's author does do a good job of mentioning the absolutely critical role of women and women's organizations in establishing public library services in smaller town. The library in Durham, North Carolina, for example, started from an idea brought up in a club-like setting. Libraries in some parts of North Carolina during the Jim Crow era, on the other hand, did not have the benefit of well-to-do folks working in their social milieu to get public officials to support a public library. In 1940, the North Carolina Library Commission noted in its annual report "In Hertford County the negroes raised a thousand dollars to purchase their own bookmobile, the first in the South to be owned and operated for the exclusive use of the colored people."

Every locality benefits from having a public library, but there is no particular model to follow and no particular impetus to cause the citizenry to demand a library. The demand for public libraries has been an individual cause, a local initiative, a particular desire - not a planned, organized, structured event.

What to do with this knowledge?

The text gave us a short, concise overview of the key features of American public library history and highlighted some of the important scholars (Shera, Ditzion, Harris, Garrison) and important issues (the role of women; service to the entire community).

Consider what you have read in the text with the situation in the library you work in or the library you are most familiar with. Ask around about its origins. Who were the individuals and/or organizations that caused the library to come into being? If you are lucky, your library will have some of its history available (as does Durham, Raleigh, and even Pinebluff). If not, you might have to ask your local history resource (which might mean asking yourself, for at least one of you) or you might want to consider a statewide local history resource, like NCEcho in North Carolina.

Many of you all are from outside of North Carolina, so take this opportunity to educate those of us from the Tarheel State about your localities. As noted above, localism and local interest have been the things that built and that sustain public libraries. As we learn more about the institution, we would benefit from learning a bit more about the roots of our own public libraries and from sharing that learning with our colleagues.