Public Libraries for Everyone? Not So Fast . . .

“Travel New England and you are bound to see Carnegie libraries”

Charlene D’Avanzo: Earlier this week I spoke to a great group of readers at the Baxter Library in Gorham, Maine. My talk – “why a scientist who never wrote a word of fiction became a mystery writer” is one I’ve given many times.  Like many writers, I love libraries and am delighted to support them.

U.S. public libraries, which have been around for nearly 200 year, have an interesting history. The first U.S. tax-supported library was in New England – Peterborough New Hampshire – in 1833. Reverend Abiel Abbot proposed that the new library be owned by the people and free to all of the town’s inhabitants. Inspired by Abbot’s idea, in 1849 New Hampshire was the first state to pass a law authorizing towns to raise money to establish and maintain their own libraries.

Philanthropists, especially Andrew Carnegie, helped increase the number of publiclibraries in the late 19th century. Carnegie built over 2000 libraries in the US and many more in the British Commonwealth. By 1919 there were 3,500 in the U.S., nearly half of them known as “Carnegie libraries”. Carnegie believed in giving to the “industrious and ambitious; not those who need everything done for them, but those who, being most anxious and able to help themselves, deserve and will be benefited by the help of others”.

Travel New England and you are bound to see Carnegie libraries. In Freeport, for example, the previous library is a classic example.

I’ve spent pretty much my whole life in New England, where libraries were, I assumed, for everyone, everywhere. Unfortunately, libraries in the south were segregated until very recently.

When we think about the civil rights movement many of us picture, I assume, Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat or Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington. Lesser known is the issue of library segregation, and the great lengths that college-aged students went to in order to integrate them.

In his memoirs, Justice Clarence Thomas said he used a black library as a boy. The public library system was finally desegregated by the 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed discrimination in public places like public libraries. It is truly a shocking and sad reality that library desegregation took place so recently in our country.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Public Libraries for Everyone? Not So Fast . . .

  1. Thanks for that reminder on libraries! My mom was taking us to the library before we could read, and I pretty much spent my teenage years in Augusta’s beautiful Lithgow Library. So I was stunned when I moved to Belgrade in 2011 (after 25 years in NH), and found the town barley had one – a small space in the community center that was not adequate. It had only been in existence for 10 years, and there was resistance in town to expand it or even keep it going. I seriously wondered if I’d known before I moved here if I would’ve chosen to live in a town that valued the worth of a library so little. I’d never lived anywhere without a robust library and just assumed every town had one! But through a concerted effort by caring residents, we now have a beautiful and thriving library we are very proud of. When the anti-library forces still would not give up, I figured I should put my money where my mouth was, and became a library trustee. I’m now the president, I’m a big one for complaining I have no time, and need to focus on writing, but if it weren’t for libraries, I wouldn’t be a mystery writer, so it was time to give back. It’s a reminder that, like everything else we hold dear, our libraries need love and attention. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    I feel I grew up in my library, too, and have been a school librarian and library clerk in three different states. What’s happening to libraries and librarians in so many places now is a direct threat to education and democracy. When I worked at Mt. Blue High School I loved to do the display for Banned Books Week. If you see a list of most-frequently challenged books across the US, it’s really mind-boggling.

Leave a Reply