“The History of the Public Library in the World & in America" at the Rock Island Public Library's downtown branch --January 17.

Tuesday, January 17, 2 p.m.

Rock Island Public Library Downtown Branch, 401 19th Street, Rock Island IL

On January 17, the Rock Island Public Library's downtown branch invites patrons to examine the long road toward familiar and comfortable surroundings in the presentation The History of the Public Library in the World & in America, a program designed to trace libraries' development, examine why public libraries popped up across America in the mid-1800s, and explore the architecture, collections, and patrons of libraries over thousands of years.

At the start of the 18th century, libraries were becoming increasingly public and were more frequently lending libraries. While the 18th century saw the switch from closed parochial libraries to lending libraries, public libraries, before this time, were parochial in nature, and libraries frequently chained their books to desks. Libraries were also not uniformly open to the public, and in 1790, the Public Library Act would still not be passed for another 67 years. Even though the British Museum existed at this time and contained more than 50,000 books, the national library was not open to the public or even to most of the population. Access to the Museum depended on passes, for which there was sometimes a waiting period of three to four weeks. Moreover, the library was not open for browsing, and once a pass to the library had been issued, the reader was simply taken on a tour of the library. Similarly, the Bibliothèque du Roi in Paris required a potential visitor to be “carefully screened” and, even after this stipulation was met, the library was open only two days per week and only to view medallions and engravings, not books.

Up until the mid-19th century, there were virtually no public libraries in the sense in which we now understand the term: libraries provided with public funds and freely accessible to all. Only one important library in Britain, Chetham's Library in Manchester, was fully and freely accessible to the public. The Chesshyre Library in Halton, Cheshire, was founded as a free public library in 1733 for all "divines of the Church of England or other gentlemen or persons of letters," but it was limited to just 422 volumes of mostly ecclesiastical and legal works. In Germany, there was another occurrence of an accessible public library. The Ducal Library at Wolfenbüttel was open “every weekday morning and afternoon” and loaned its books to the public. Between 1714 and 1799, the library loaned 31,485 books to 1,648 different users. These types of public libraries, much closer to the present-day concept of the public library, were extremely rare, and most libraries remained difficult to access.

However, the increase in secular literature around the mid-1800s encouraged the spread of lending libraries, and commercial subscription libraries began when booksellers began renting out extra copies of books. The mid-to-late 18th century saw a virtual epidemic of feminine reading as novels became more and more popular. They were, however, largely frowned upon in society, and in England, there were many who lamented at the "villainous profane and obscene books," and the opposition to the circulating library, on moral grounds. Still, circulating libraries began to usher in a completely new way of reading, which was no longer viewed simply as an academic pursuit or an attempt to gain spiritual guidance. Reading became a social activity. Many circulating libraries were attached to the shops of milliners or drapers, and served as much for social gossip and the meeting of friends as coffee shops do today.

The History of the Public Library in the World & in America will be presented in downtown Rock Island on January 17, participation in the 2 p.m. program is free, and more information is available by calling (309)732-7323 and visiting RockIslandLibrary.org.

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