March 27, 1996

This comment is presented as part of the H-Urban Seminar on the History of Community Organizing and Community-Based Development. For additional information on the seminar, visit our WWW Home Page at or send e-mail to Wendy Plotkin at

We appreciate Cheryl Malone making this comment available to the seminar.

Amy Begg's paper is also available (send e-mail to with the message GET PRATT PACKAGE if you are unable to access it from the WWW).

Do Public Libraries Matter? A Response to Amy A. Begg, "Enoch Pratt Free Library and Its Service to Communities of Immigrant Residents of Baltimore During the Progressive Era, 1900-1914"


Cheryl Knott Malone (,
History Bibliographer, General Libraries &
Ph.D. Candidate, Graduate School of Library and Information Science,
University of Texas at Austin

In the late 20th century, when many public libraries in the U.S. have been affected by budget cutters and ax grinders [1], Amy A. Begg invites us to cast a glance back at a particular public library whose influence and importance long have been recognized by librarians and library historians. With the inclusion of Begg's paper in this online conference, H- Urban's editors indicate an awareness that public libraries are urban cultural institutions deserving scholarly attention and that some individuals and community groups have considered public library collections and services essential, at least historically. In short, public libraries matter. But they matter in different ways, depending on the times and places and people involved. The public library means one thing to its founders, another to its workers, and other things to its users. It may mean something else again to historians.

Until the early 1970s, library historians tended to see public libraries in the U.S. as "Arsenals of a Democratic Culture," as Sidney Ditzion's 1947 book title put it, whose founders and administrators were fueled by a humanitarian concern for the underprivileged.[2] Then, in an essay designed to revise and provoke, library historian Michael Harris used the example of Boston Public Library, founded in the early 1850s and considered the first modern public library in the U.S., to explore the elitism and authoritarianism of the developing library profession and its commitment to acquire only the "best" books so the library of the masses would function as a stabilizing agent. Far from being Ditzion's organic, altruistic institution in the service of democracy, Harris's public library was an instrument of social control, designed to educate ignorant immigrants into "willing subjection to our own institutions,"[3] as Boston's George Ticknor expressed it, as well as to preserve an excellent collection for Boston's elite.[4]

In a response to Harris, library historian Phyllis Dain noted that librarians never lost sight of the fact that public libraries were tax- supported institutions and that they therefore were accountable to the public for the kinds of materials they purchased with municipal revenues. Thus communities always had an impact on public librarians as public servants and on the kinds of decisions librarians made regarding collections and services. But even more to the point, Dain argued that libraries "can be open-ended, democratic institutions that can lend themselves to whatever purposes their users may have in mind . . . ."[5] Despite the motives of trustees and administrators, once the building was up and the collection shelved, the library, from the user's standpoint (and probably from the rank-and-file librarian's), had a life of its own. French sociologist Henri Lefebvre's assertion about social space on a grand scale seems to fit the humble local library as well: it "serves as a tool of thought and of action; . . . it is also a means of control, and hence of domination, of power; yet . . . it escapes in part from those who would make use of it."[6] In Begg's paper, one senses Mrs. Bloch escaping the unimaginative administration of Bernard Steiner, and Station 11's patrons escaping the enthusiastic interference of Mrs. Bloch.

Harris and Dain launched public library history on a new trajectory, with fruitful results.[7] Some community groups did not wait for the city to provide library services but started their own. The ubiquity of subscription, social, and mercantile libraries at least since the time of Benjamin Franklin attests to a tradition of such community organizing. New laws passed during the latter half of the nineteenth century made it possible for municipalities to tax their residents to support "free" public libraries and consequently shifted responsibility from private to public, changing the relationship between communities and their libraries. Inserted into the process were the library building grants steel baron Andrew Carnegie sprinkled across the country.

City officials were not always quick to take what Carnegie offered, at least partly because it came with a string attached: the city must promise to allocate an annual budget amounting to ten percent of the Carnegie building grant in exchange for the building. But library fever spread among city dwellers who coveted Carnegie's gifts to other towns, and community activists found themselves having to lobby not only for better streets, improved sanitation, and proper schools but also for library services. As Anne Firor Scott and Abigail Van Slyck and others have documented, white women's clubs often served as the catalyst that forced city fathers to go after Carnegie money and transform a private collection (often for the use of white men) into a public library (where the ladies reading room soon became redundant).[8] Once the main library was operating, other interest groups in other areas of town began competing with one another for branches. Conventional wisdom in the developing field of librarianship asserted that proximity increased library use, and the main library in the central business district began to spawn branches, abetted by Andrew Carnegie's munificent obsession.

The Enoch Pratt Free Library needed no community groups for its founding; the wealthy and well-meaning Pratt saw to that. Although Baltimore was unusual for the South in its relatively early acquisition of a public library, its truly open-to-all (including African Americans) library policy, and its relatively large influx of immigrants, its development of branch collections followed patterns fairly typical of other urban areas. It is clear from Ms. Begg's paper that the initiative that created Station 11 emanated from local residents, and my research in other libraries' archives confirms the pattern of small groups of urban dwellers (often united by a common racial or ethnic heritage) working together to push for combined Carnegie and city funding to support neighborhood branch libraries whose collections reflected the interests of their users. Such groups seem to have grasped the potentially empowering significance of the library as an accessible repository of knowledge.[9]

Amy Begg's paper evokes the dynamic process of urban institution building, with its shifting motives and alliances and its public/private initiatives. New residents, the old guard, paid bureaucrats, and unpaid volunteer workers shaped Baltimore's built environment and cultural landscape against a backdrop of gender, race, and class, and that was as true in the small local cases of public library branches as it was in larger concerns over citywide services affecting property and public safety. Clearly, further close study of public libraries can contribute to an understanding of the historical and current contests over city spaces and, in the process, make public libraries matter in urban history.


1. THE BOWKER ANNUAL includes a yearly overview of the status of public libraries; for example, see Evan St. Lifer, "LJ News Report: Public Libraries Meet Fiscal Reality Head On." THE BOWKER ANNUAL. 40th ed. (New Providence, NJ: R.R. Bowker, 1995), 3-10.

2. Sidney H. Ditzion, ARSENALS OF A DEMOCRATIC CULTURE. (Chicago: American Library Association, 1947).

3. Michael Harris, "The Purpose of the American Public Library," LIBRARY JOURNAL 98 (September 15, 1973), 2510.

4.The LIBRARY JOURNAL article cited above was a summation of Michael H. Harris, "The Purpose of the American Public Library in Historical Perspective: A Revisionist Interpretation." (Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Library and Information Sciences, 1972), ED071668. Harris continued to refine themes and issues in his "Externalist or Internalist Frameworks for the Interpretation of American Library History - The Continuing Debate." THE JOURNAL OF LIBRARY HISTORY X (April 1975), 106-110; "The Intellectual History of American Public Librarianship." In Harold Goldstein, ed. MILESTONES TO THE PRESENT: PAPERS FROM LIBRARY HISTORY SEMINAR V (Syracuse, NY: Gaylord, 1978), 232-237; and "Antiquarianism, Professional Piety, and Critical Scholarship in Recent American Library Historiography." THE JOURNAL OF LIBRARY HISTORY 13 (Winter 1978), 37-43.

5.Phyllis Dain, "Ambivalence and Paradox: The Social Bonds of the Public Library." LIBRARY JOURNAL 100 (February 1, 1975), 266. Dain's exploration of services to ethnic groups and immigrants offers a comparison to the case of Baltimore in her "Outreach Programs in Public Libraries--How New? With Specific Reference to The New York Public Library." In Harold Goldstein, ed. MILESTONES TO THE PRESENT: PAPERS FROM LIBRARY HISTORY SEMINAR V (Syracuse, NY: Gaylord, 1978), 255-285.

6.Henri Lefebvre. THE PRODUCTION OF SPACE. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 26.

7.Much of this work has been published in LIBRARIES & CULTURE (formerly THE JOURNAL OF LIBRARY HISTORY). See the section on public libraries in Donald G. Davis, Jr., and John Mark Tucker, AMERICAN LIBRARY HISTORY. (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1989).

8.Anne Firor Scott, NATURAL ALLIES: WOMEN'S ASSOCIATIONS IN AMERICAN HISTORY. (Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 1991); Abigail Ayres Van Slyck, "Free to All: Carnegie Libraries and the Transformation of American Culture, 1886-1917." (Ph.D. Thesis, University of California, Berkeley, 1989).

9.John Y. Cole, "Storehouses and Workshops: American Libraries and the Uses of Knowledge." In Alexandra Oleson and John Voss, eds. THE ORGANIZATION OF KNOWLEDGE IN MODERN AMERICA, 1860-1920. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), 364-385. Cole considers "how the growth of a new American faith in the power of knowledge and its specialized uses transformed American librarianship." (p. 364)