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Published: July 12, 2011


A specially housed collection of books, periodicals, manuscripts, nonprint media such as recordings and films and a wide variety of other materials for general or restricted public use but seldom offered for sale. There are nearly 125,000 libraries in the United States. All fall into one of three general categories:

  • Freestanding, community (tax) supported public libraries (about 9,000) open to the general public and from which books may be borrowed for limited periods, usually at no charge, except for an annual membership fee;
  • Academic (college and university) and school libraries—about 3,000 of the first and about 100,000 of the second, with many of the public elementary and secondary school libraries called MEDIA CENTERS Academic and school libraries are usually designed to support the school curriculum and associated student and faculty research and are open to students and faculty free of charge. Many academic libraries also open their doors to accredited researchers and scholars with no direct ties to the supporting institution. Harvard University remains America’s largest research library, with more than 14 million volumes. Yale has more than 10 million, University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign more than 9.3 million, University of California at Berkeley nearly 9 million and University of Texas nearly 7.8 million.
  • Specialized libraries such as art, museum, medical, legal, corporate and rare book collections housing discipline-specific collections for restricted viewing and study by members and accredited researchers.

Libraries date back to the most ancient Middle Eastern civilizations, between 3000 and 2000 B.C., when they were used to house clay tablets inscribed with business and legal records. In the New World, the first colonists arrived with large collections of books. Reading had become a passion of the masses in England in the 200 years after Gutenberg, a passion comparable to 20th-century America’s love for television. “Never in any age were books more sought for and better esteemed,” wrote an anonymous English chronicler in 1590. Thus, the early settlers arrived with sizable collections of books to fill their own private libraries.


School libraries give students access to computers for research.

The first quasi-public library was the result of John Harvard’s 400-volume bequest to Harvard College in 1638, for use by students and faculty. The first truly public libraries were the work of Thomas Bray, an Anglican priest who had been designated to supervise religious affairs in Maryland. In the years between his appointment in 1695 and his arrival in 1700, Bray arranged for the establishment of libraries throughout the colonies. The first, founded in Annapolis with 1,095 volumes, was the earliest lending library in the English-speaking colonies. Bray established more than 30 others in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston and in rural parishes throughout Maryland. Although liturgical works formed the core of these collections, they also contained works designed to educate: grammar, rhetoric, poetry, logic, metaphysics, ethics, economics, politics, law, history, physiology, medicine, mathematics, trade and commerce. Bray sent detailed instructions to the priests who ran the libraries on how to house, shelve and circulate books in their collections.

The thirst for books being what it was, the Bray libraries expanded rapidly in the next century, as did private collections, whose owners often left them as bequests that formed the bases for university library collections. By 1766, the Harvard library had grown to more than 4,000 titles, even after fire had destroyed large parts of the original collection. Two large bequests enlarged Yale College’s library to about 2,500 titles by 1783, while King’s College (now Columbia), the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania) and the College of William and Mary had each built sizable collections. parts of the original collection. Two large bequests enlarged Yale College’s library to about 2,500 titles by 1783, while King’s College (now Columbia), the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania) and the College of William and Mary had each built sizable collections.


The Butler Library in New York City. One of Columbia University’s 26 libraries, it houses 6 million volumes, 4 million microfilm items and 59,000 periodicals. (Columbia University)

Meanwhile, BENJAMIN FRANKLIN developed an entirely new type of library, the subscription library, which evolved into the American public library we know today. Franklin and his friends had formed an intellectual discussion group called the “junto,” whose members agreed to lend each other books from each other’s extensive collections, thus giving each “the advantage of using books of all the other members, which would be nearly as beneficial as if each owned the whole.” In 1731, Franklin “proposed to render the benefit from books more common by commencing a public subscription library.” His plan called for an association of subscribers, each of whom paid 40 shillings for the purchase of the initial collection and 10 shillings a year thereafter to expand the collection. The first books acquired by the Library Company of Philadelphia, which Franklin and two other junto members selected, were purely practical. An autodidact himself and a great believer in self-education, Franklin stocked the library with atlases, histories and a variety of handbooks for would-be entrepreneurs—but no theological works. Franklin’s library was imitated everywhere: three in Philadelphia alone and others in Germantown and Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Trenton, New Jersey; New York City; Charleston, South Carolina; and dozens more throughout the colonies.

The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries spawned the founding of many specialized private libraries, some of which offered formal instruction for self-improvement for apprentices, tradesmen, merchants and others. Social libraries also began to form during the early 19th century, some catering to special interests such as history, others to general interest in literature, others, such as the LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, to specialized professional groups, and still others to the adherents of specific religious sects. All such social libraries provided opportunities for discussion groups mutual education and self-improvement, and they rapidly became as central to community life as churches had been in the nation’s earlier years.

The expansion of scientific and technical knowledge fostered a growth in the demand for greater and easier access to books. As the number of colleges grew, they opened and expanded huge new quasi-public libraries. But it was industrialist ANDREW CARNEGIE who was responsible for the growth of the free public library in the 1890s. A penniless bobbin boy from Scotland, the young Carnegie had educated himself in a mechanics library in Pittsburgh, and he sought to offer the same opportunity to other children in his adopted country. Although there were about 4,000 libraries in the United States, only about 1,000 were “free public libraries” owned by the community and thus open to all. Carnegie distributed more than $39 million to more than 1,400 American communities to build library buildings, stipulating only that they be “the property of all,” open to all and maintained by community taxes. “I do not think that the community which is not willing to maintain a library had better possess it,” said Carnegie. “It is only a feeling that the library belongs to every citizen, richest and poorest alike, that gives it a soul, as it were. The library buildings which I am giving are the property of all the members of the community which maintains them.”

Accompanying the growth in the number of libraries came a philosophical debate over their ultimate purpose. Unlike Carnegie, many philanthropists who underwrote the establishment of libraries saw their ultimate purpose as being conservatories of the world’s knowledge, dedicated to preserving the world’s knowledge for scholarly research and protecting books and manuscripts from destructive handling by the public. It was left to MELVIL DEWEY to promote the role of libraries as popular institutions by organizing a professional organization for librarians (the American Library Association) in 1876 and convincing members to adopt the popularization of libraries as their official goal. By organizing the first training school for librarians, opening the field to women and establishing the first system of traveling libraries, Dewey further assured the library’s future as an educative institution of the people rather than the scholarly elite.

Library contents and design changed radically during the last half of the 20th century, when a vast proliferation in the number of published works left most libraries too small to stock even a small percentage of new works. Moreover, the advent of and demand for audiotapes, videotapes, compact discs and other nonprint media put library space at an even greater premium. Many libraries turned to microfilm to store text from newspapers, magazines and professional, scientific and scholarly journals. Space-clogging card catalogs were transferred onto high-speed integrated computer systems from which readers and researchers could obtain instant bibliographic data on any work by subject, author or title. The systems also served as a central tool for library administration, allowing librarians to control circulation, acquire new works, keep track of library periodical subscriptions and generate reports, bibliographies, notices and statistics. Still another solution to space problems was the establishment of interlibrary cooperative agreements that allowed libraries to avoid duplicating each other’s collections while allowing each library in the cooperative group to borrow books on behalf of its member readers from every other participating library. Such cooperative agreements also allowed libraries to limit acquisitions by specializing, with one library in the cooperative specializing in music, another in art, and so on.

By 2005, America’s towns and cities boasted nearly 16,200 public libraries. The Chicago Public Library was largest, with 78 branches holding about 10.75 million books. Next in order of size of holdings were the public libraries in Cincinnati and Hamilton County (41 branches, 9.9 million books), Queens Borough Public Library (New York City, 62 branches, 9.7 million books) and Los Angeles County (84 branches, 9.2 million books). The public libraries in Detroit, New York (in Manhattan, and once the nation’s largest), Philadelphia, Dallas, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles (city) each had between 5 million and 7.5 million books.

In addition to the nation’s public libraries, nearly 77,300 public schools, or 82%, have libraries, with an average of two librarians and 1,800 books per 100 students. More than 17,000 private schools, or about 63%, have libraries, with average holdings of more 2,850 books per 100 students. Of the more than 4,000 degree-granting institutions of higher education, nearly 3,700, or about 90%, have their own libraries, with an average of about 175,000 volumes in each library. Harvard University has the largest collection, with more than 15 million volumes, followed by Yale, with 11.4 million, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, with about 10.2 million. Fifteen universities had between 5 and 8 million books, and more than 100 had collections of one million or more. Nearly all public libraries—in school and out—offer Internet connections that expand their collections to all but infinite numbers by providing access to public and academic libraries and such national and international libraries as the Library of Congress. About half the public libraries have wireless Internet access, and about half the public libraries and all school libraries filter Internet access to prevent minors from accessing salacious or inappropriate materials.

Universal access to the world’s books via the Internet and the development of digitized libraries may well put an end to many traditional bricks-and-mortar libraries by converting every computer into an electronic “virtual library.” In 1994, the University of Southern California opened America’s first digitized library by first scanning its own thousands of books before moving them into a storage center and replacing library shelves with 250 computers, communal work areas and rooms for students to work on multimedia projects. Since then, the main University of Texas campus at Austin and dozens of other universities such as Emory and the universities of Arizona, Georgia and Washington have replaced their conventional libraries and archival materials with digitized libraries. Smaller colleges such as Mount Holyoke, Dickinson and Hamilton have followed suit.

In addition to digitization of local college and university libraries, a number of projects are under way to create mammoth global digitized libraries. The University of Illinois’s Project Gutenberg has been digitizing millions of out-of-copyright books since 1971. Accessible by computer from anywhere in the world, the university’s digitized library consists of three broad sections: light literature (Alice in Wonderland, Aesop’s Fables, and so on), heavy literature (for example, the Bible, Moby Dick, Shakespeare’s works), and references (almanacs, dictionaries, thesauruses, and so on). In addition, the search engine Google is developing a mammoth GOOGLE PRINT LIBRARY PROJECT to provide access to all information in the more than 30 million works at five major research libraries: Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Oxford University in England and the New York Public Library. By scanning every published book in its partner libraries, Google will provide complete access to all outof- copyright materials in the public domain and limited access to materials protected by copyrights, with appropriate references to publishers, booksellers and libraries that can provide the complete book. In addition to the Google project, the Library of Congress is creating the WORLD DIGITAL LIBRARY—an on-line repository of cultural artifacts from the world’s national and international archives. Another giant search engine, Yahoo, is working with the University of California system, University of Toronto, the European Archive and National Archives of England to digitize millions of books and archives in their combined libraries. Calling its venture the Open Content Alliance, Yahoo is limiting what it will scan to materials in the public domain that are no longer protected by copyright.

Digital libraries are not without their critics, of course—especially on university campuses, where many academic leaders fear hard-copy texts will all but disappear and digitization will permit students to pluck data from an array of books and forgo reading any of them in their entirety. “If you can get out of a four-year program at a great university without reading a book, there’s a problem,” warns Michael Gortman, president of the American Library Association.

Book publishers, however, saw the costs of publishing hard-copy texts soar nearly 200% over the last two decades of the 20th century, all but pricing conventional books out of the market. With the average college student now forced to spend an average of nearly $1,000 a year on textbooks, many students are simply forming groups to buy a text cooperatively. Faced with soaring costs and declining sales, publishers began digitizing their books at the turn of the century; one group of publishers joined with seven dental schools to digitize 2.2 million pages, 300,000 images, 400 pounds of textbooks and 20 hours of video that combine to make up the required out-of-class study materials for the standard four-year curriculum at American dental schools. The result is a single DVD weighing two ounces and costing no more than the combined costs of all the books and materials it replaces—about $6,000—but simple to update each year for both publishers and students.

In less technical areas, many publishers are able to produce “e-textbooks” at half the price library 655 of hard-copy tomes. In 2000, McGraw-Hill began producing electronic versions of many of its best-selling textbooks and, on request from professors of well-attended courses, producing customized electronic textbooks for specific courses, combining lectures, articles and chapters of specific books into a single e-text. Thomson Higher Education offers e-textbooks under the Advantage Series imprint at half the price of paper versions, as does Pearson, with its Safari- X imprint, and Houghton Mifflin. Online textbooks combine the advantages of books with search engines that can extract data and coursemanagement software that can highlight and organize materials, produce outlines or piece together essays. Some, but not all, can be downloaded in their entirety into hard-copy format, and all can easily be updated periodically by author, publisher and reader without publishing an entirely new edition. College bookstores usually offer electronic textbooks at two-thirds the price of hard-copy versions, and at some colleges, bookstores offer recordings of all the lectures of various professors, thus obviating the need for attending those lectures or taking notes. Purdue University has recorded lectures from 70 courses that students can download onto digital audio players.

In addition to textbook publishers, publishers of scientific journals are digitizing their articles, and, indeed, two digitized libraries of scientific articles have been assembled—one at the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Biotechnology Information and another dubbed Open Archive by a group of scholars at the University of Southampton, England.