Most writers would be inclined to agree the public library was one of the greatest ideas of all time.
My hometown didn’t have a library until 1953. It wasn’t that we were ignorant savages—there were school and church libraries and commercial lending libraries before that time.
Desire for a community library dates back to at least 1866 when an editorial in a local newspaper proclaimed: “A place that is lacking in facilities for gaining information can never hope to compete with other places whose influential people give their children and others the means of personal, intellectual culture. People may come here to make money, and stay for a few years; but we can never hope to have a solid, stable, attractive population unless there be opportunities for proper mental development.”
The writer of the editorial was not without a plan for meeting the goal, either. He suggested a three-story building be erected. The first floor would be rented for stores or offices, the second floor to house the library and the third would be a lecture hall. He thought rent of the stores would pay a good percentage of the library expenses and said occasional lectures by popular speakers would fund the rest. He felt a membership of 150 persons who contributed about $3 annually would keep up the supply of papers and periodicals and add some new books.
Unfortunately, his plan did not bear fruit. There was a fund drive for a library before World War II, but the war interfered with those plans. It took a major campaign headed by the local Woman’s Club and a number of other concerned citizens and organizations to realize the dream which finally resulted in the opening of the facility, which remains a vital factor in boosting the cultural and educational level of the community. It’s worth noting, women’s clubs were a chief proponent in the move to establish libraries in the U.S. after the Civil War. So, ladies, a tip of the hat to you.
Though we lacked a public library, my family had a good supply of books at home and the several independent bookstores which existed in the town at the time got a good share of my spending money.
Libraries are another of those good ideas we owe to the Greeks. And they weren’t even the first to have them. The concept existed in ancient China and the Central Library of Astan Quds Razavi in Mashhad, Iran, is more than six centuries old. The Francis Trigge Chained Library of Grantham, Lincolnshire, England, dates back to 1598 and is still in use.
Benjamin Franklin was responsible for the opening of the first in my home state in 1731—one of his best ideas, in my opinion. The Quebec Library, the first publicly funded in Canada, opened in 1779. But Mexico pre-dates both in claiming the first public library in the New World. Don Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, bishop of Puebla and Viceroy of New Spain, opened the Palafoxian library in 1646 when he expelled the Jesuits and confiscated their books. This library still exists and holds some of the oldest books in North and South America.
The point of all this is, of course, is recognition of National Library Week, April 11-17.
With the advantage of the Internet and having a large personal library, I don’t frequent my public library as often as I did in the past. But I’m eternally grateful for its existence and to those who maintain it and I believe the world would be a bleaker place without the public library. Truthfully I’ve probably spent more indoor time in libraries and book shops than anywhere else. And, if I have to be indoors, I can think of few places I’d rather be.