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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Public Libraries Develop

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, March 27, 2016

It is impossible to pinpoint the establishment of the first “Public Library” in America, but several locations make the case for their library being the first.


Boston had a library as early as 1711, and New York City and Philadelphia both claim a public library in the same time period.


Benjamin Franklin was instrumental in establishing a library in Philadelphia, insisting that any city and its citizens had to have access to a library collection as part of a democratic government.


Many of these early libraries began as “subscription libraries” where citizens would contribute some funds to collectively acquire books that could be shared among the subscribers.


Steubenville documented a “subscription library” in 1815 that collected books in the back of a Drug Store that people could borrow them every third Saturday.


These libraries disappeared quickly as the small collections were exhausted quickly or people failed to return the books.  (Nothing has changed for libraries)


By the beginning of the 19th Century, public libraries were being funded by governments as a public service, and local private libraries were being opened to the public.


In Ohio, the Dayton Library was funded by the city as early as 1805.


Peterborough, NH claims the first public library to be completely funded by the village in 1833.


By the mid-1800s, Ohio had several public libraries operating across the state, with various state codes allowing the participation of government agencies as funding sources for these libraries.


People had specific information needs, and a shelf of books no longer met their need.  Public libraries began to form collections to meet the needs of the public using those libraries.


In 1906, the State Library of Ohio established their Library Development Office to assist libraries forming around the state.


That office also began the first “library sharing program” to provide books to meet the specific requests of the public at the various state public libraries.


That program was refined in the 1920s as “Interlibrary Loan” where the State Library gathered requests and sent books to specific libraries to meet the requests.


By the 1960s computers began assisting the process and a statewide Union Catalog had developed showing the holdings of many Ohio public libraries.


Our library system began using fax technology to send around lists of book requests in 1976.  The State Library of Ohio continued as the coordinator of the system filling book requests all across the state.


Library automation streamlined the process as even the smallest library collection appeared online and all of Ohio’s public libraries became one large resource for Ohio’s citizens.


Today, the public can place their own requests online and have the book sent directly to their own public library location in 5-day per week statewide delivery.


Collections are further supplemented with online databases and eBooks, as well as digitized resources that are shared across the state.


These online systems also help allocate resources and books to libraries with a demand for this book or that, rather than letting books sit unused on one shelf or another.


In our own library system, a quarter of a million library items come and goes during the year due to specific public requests.


This has all happened in one generation of library services.  I can well remember the clerical shuffle of paper and cards as we managed those early days of library books.


Using a typewriter to pound out a 4-part form of Interlibrary Loan, and mailing it to Columbus and a package arriving in the mail with the requested book some weeks later.


Today, laundry carts full of books, DVDs, CDs, arriving daily with shipping labels to fill the request of someone using the library.


We are quickly moving to scanning and sending directly to the user, or pulling information from a database and forwarding, and using your smart phone to access the library.


As I always say, “the library hasn’t changed; it is the tools that we have to use that are different.”