"The Diary of the Human Race"
There have been libraries
ever since someone
What starts out as
archives of temple liturgy
or private collections grows
into public institutions.
In America, the dawn of
college libraries comes in 1638
when Reverend John Harvard
donates 280 books to a new school.
The first social library is invented
by Benjamin Franklin in 1731, run
by subscription, and later incorporated
as the Library Company of Philadelphia.
In 1762, William Rind introduces
the first circulating library where
people could rent all kinds of books.
During the 1830s, Horace Mann
pushes for school libraries, so that
students who learn to read will then
have something they can read.
These trends combine to form
the first public library in Peterborough
in 1833 -- publicly funded, publicly owned,
and free for all of the residents to enjoy.
Women flock to the libraries as
a sanctuary, a source of knowledge,
and a place to earn their own living.
Black people, freed from slavery
and no longer forbidden to read,
seek out books as a form of power.
Immigrants come, too, eager
to learn the language and history
and wisdom of their new nation.
The daily life of the library
soon evolves its own pattern.
The library opens early
and closes late, available
to all citizens regardless
of their working hours.
Librarians tend to the books,
lend them out, and reshelve them.
Newspapers arrive every day,
presented on long tables or
ranks of facing shelves. In
large libraries, the collection
spans papers from many cities.
A librarian watches as a woman
who studies the Constitution and
the Declaration of Independence
becomes outraged and a Suffragette.
Broke students pour into the building
just as soon as their schools close.
The place is warm and bright, full
of facts to study and stories to enjoy.
In time, the broke students become
well-to-do scholars who send
a new generation of students
to the library to study.
A librarian watches as
a black man stops reading
and then begins to write.
More and more books
come into existence as
diverse people speak out
about their own experiences.
The libraries buy them.
A librarian watches as
a cluster of immigrants
get together and launch
a newspaper in German.
The library picks up
that subscription too,
and more immigrants
come so they can read it.
In everything from the books and
newspapers to the card catalogs
that organize them, the library
is the diary of the human race.
* * *
"A great library contains the diary of the human race."
— George Mercer Dawson (1849-1901)
Public libraries in America have a long history. This section covers the 1500s-1800s. "The oldest library" actually spans several different ones, depending on how you count it. Read about how public libraries got started.
Explore the history of German language newspapers in America.