September 06, 2001

Library origins

Another use for online journals: put all your questions in and hope some reader
knows the answer. Of particular use for those too lazy to do proper

Who is the benefactor to humanity who invented public
lending libraries? Benjamin Franklin usually gets credited, but (much as it pains
me, a Philadelphian and Penn alum) to admit it, I don't think he deserves all the

The great library of Alexandria was reputed to have a copy of
every book then in existence, but I am sure it wasn't open to the public (most of
whom couldn't read anyway). Monasteries and colleges have had for libraries as
long as those institutions have existed, but those, again, were only open to their

The British Library dates back to 1753, but in its early
days was simply the library of the British Museum. Its great Reading Room was not
opened until 1857, and anyhow, as far as I know, it was not a lending library, at
least not to the general public. Holders of a library card could read there, but
not necessarily take books out (someone let me know if I'm wrong

The Library Company Franklin invented was a group of not-too-
well-off, studious young men (geeks, in other words) who decided to pool their
books so that they could all have access to each other's books, forming a much
larger library than any of them could afford on his own. This was a true lending
library, whose books could be withdrawn for a set period of time by any member.

What I want to know is, how did libraries grow from Franklin's
private Company into facilities open to any resident of the town? Who is the
genius who deserves all the lilies for the idea? Andrew Carnegie's money enabled
many a small town to have a library, so he had a lot to do with making libraries
universal, but I don't think it was a new idea by then.

Whoever it
was, we should name a new holiday for him or her, and all take time off from work
to read on that day.

Posted by dichroic at September 6, 2001 04:59 PM
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