March 27, 1996

This paper 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 Amy Begg's making this paper available to the seminar.

Cheryl Malone's comment on this paper is also available (send e-mail to with the message GET PRATT COMMENT if you are unable to access it from the WWW).


by Amy A. Begg

Reference Librarian,
National Museum of American History Branch Library
Smithsonian Institution Libraries
National Museum of American History
MAH Room 5016; MRC 630
Washington, D.C. 20560

While libraries have existed in communities since ancient times, it was not until the nineteenth century that the concept of a public library, open to all, was conceived. [1] Appreciation and use of the public library grew, largely due to the construction of Carnegie Libraries in metropolitan communities nationwide. During the Progressive Era, library professionals and community leaders advocated that a publicly supported book collection was vital to a community's potential for learning.[2] [3]

Early twentieth century librarians saw the primary mission of a library to be the diffusion of knowledge.[4] This was accomplished through book selection, access (via a card catalog, or through open stack policies), and through the availability of a skilled librarian. Further, many librarians sponsored lectures and book clubs for community members, and often designed cooperative programs with local schools and clubs, which allowed library materials to circulate. All of these services insured access to a library's collection for many community members.[5]

Europeans migrated to America steadily during the first three decades of the twentieth century. From 1900 to 1920, foreign born residents made up 13 percent of America's population. [6] The majority of these immigrants settled in American cities, living in communities populated by people from their own countries.[7] They turned to local organizations for assistance in adapting to American life. In addition to churches, and settlement houses, immigrants turned to public libraries for education and job training.[8]

American public libraries were vital to these immigrants' orientation into American culture. Immigrants turned to libraries for assistance in learning to read, to further their own education, to enhance the education of their children, and for social outlets. Library administrations responded to the demands of immigrant patrons by altering their collection development policies, building branch libraries in immigrant communities, and hiring bi-lingual staff members who could communicate with the patrons living in immigrant communities.

Recently, the librarians' motives for providing services, specifically for those immigrant patrons, has become the topic of controversy. Library scientists and American social historians have considered public libraries' motives in serving the immigrants, and their conclusions can be placed in two groups. The initial group of historians, who shall be referred to as traditional historians, found the motives of public librarians in the early Twentieth Century to be based on an altruistic desire to provide immigrant patrons with the opportunity to succeed in American society. In traditional historians' opinion, librarians believed that the patron's success rested on an understanding of and a familiarity with American culture and language, which could be achieved through reading classic American works of history and literature.[9]

Traditional historians point out that librarians' efforts to make the library more accessible to communities dominated by immigrant readers were undertaken to Americanize immigrants. Librarians worked with immigrant communities in an attempt to expose the immigrants to American books and literature, especially works of a high intellectual quality, so that they could readily adapt to American society. [10] This goal of Americanizing immigrant patrons was consistent with the goals of Progressive reformers.[11]

Traditional historians suggest Progressives wanted to make sure that public institutions instilled American values into those they served. They called upon the better element of American society, meaning the educated, upper-middle class, to serve as reform leaders in American institutions that served the working class, primarily made up of immigrants. The settlement house movement is one example of a Progressive program. Settlement house reformers such as Jane Addams worked toward a so-called second phase of democracy, by breaking down the barriers between social classes, which emerged as a result of industrialization and immigration.[12] In Addams' opinion, interaction between members of different social classes was one means of achieving social integration.

Professional librarians' efforts were consistent with the progressive movement. Many believed that teaching English and educating the foreign born about citizenship and American history was an effective way to advance the assimilation process.[13] Immigrants readily adapted to this approach. An editor of NEW YORK LIBRARIES, in 1908, noted that "reports from large city libraries almost invariably show in their statistics of circulation that it is in the centers where the foreign-born population is the largest that the percentage of current fiction read is the lowest and the percentage of history, science, and the arts called for is highest." [14]

Revisionist historians have questioned the motives of public librarians' provision of services for immigrants, much as they have reinterpreted the underlying goals of settlement house workers. Revisionists suggest that librarians strove to control the behaviors of immigrants, by influencing what they read. Some historians have suggested that librarians worked with immigrant communities in an attempt to elevate their professional status. Others suggest that librarians ignored the immigrant populations within their communities entirely.[15]

A useful illustration to examine the strengths of these revisionist claims is Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library. Baltimore, the sixth largest United States city from the 1880s until 1914, was a financial and manufacturing center. Its population consisted of wealthy industrialists, clerks, artisans, and many poor, working class residents, including immigrants. Shortly after this time period, the city's immigrant population grew, due in part to the influx of Russian immigrants.[16] Many of Baltimore's immigrant residents lived in urban neighborhoods, populated by people with whom they shared common language, religion, and customs.[17] This paper will consider the actions of the Pratt administration, in an attempt to learn more about the motives of library professionals who provided library services for immigrant patrons, living in these communities, during the period in question.

Philip Kalisch, a revisionist historian, in his history of the Pratt Library, suggests the Progressive era found Baltimore's library "deeply rooted in the conservatism of the past." Kalisch claims that the Enoch Pratt library continued to cater to the select demands of the educated minority in Baltimore, and ignored the literary needs of the immigrant communities. But, this point of view fails to take into account the primary mission of the Library, established at the time of its founding. In 1886, Mr. Enoch Pratt, a resident of Baltimore, began to create a public institution which would serve as the "people's university." Being a self made man, Mr. Pratt believed that initiative and curiosity were more important than formal education for the achievement of success. In order to foster the opportunity for self education for citizens of his own city, Pratt created the Free Library, which eventually bore his name.[18]

The Pratt Library's administration was run by Bernard Steiner, Librarian (1892-1926), who believed that a public library's mission should be the education of all citizens, especially children and immigrants. To teach these groups the values necessary for citizenship, Steiner believed that libraries should provide access to "wholesome and instructive books."[19] Further, Steiner suggested to the Pratt library staff that the ultimate goal was of improving every patron's chances of employment. In his view, this would enable him to earn more money and become a more solid, tax paying, American citizen.[20]

Changes in the libraries' collection acquisition and control during the years of heaviest immigrant settlement in Baltimore (1900-1920) show that the Board of Trustees and the Librarian were aware of and responded to the changes in the city's population. These policy decisions also evidence the Library's mission, which was to provide services for all citizens of the city. The Library purchased books for the branch libraries, in Polish, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish, provided they were what was then regarded as reputable and of high moral fiber.[21] For example, Henry James, a Bohemian clergyman, was asked to prepare a list of one hundred Bohemian books that he felt should be included in Pratt's collection. After insuring that the books were instructive, and not frivolous in nature, the Board unanimously approved the acquisition of all one hundred. The books were acquired and sent to Branch 5, in the Bohemian community of Baltimore.[22]

A prime example of the Pratt Library's commitment to serving communities dominated by foreign born people is the construction and support of branch libraries and stations. Branches were built in residential areas, usually in buildings donated to the Library. If a building was not available, a Station was created, within an existing structure, through which books from the main branch and other nearby branches circulated, so that the expense of buying another collection was delayed. Once a Station built up a steady patron base, a separate Branch was constructed.

The expansion of the Pratt system during the Progressive era was significant. In 1906, for example, the Library consisted of the main branch, seven branches, and five stations, and had outlays totaling $58,751. Between 1908 and 1920, a new branch was opened every 16 months. [23] These were built in all parts of the city, and served a wide range of patrons. For example, Branch 7, on Falls Road near 37th Street, served small mill workers; Branch 10, on Mott Street, at the corner of Gay Street, served the Negro community; and Branch 19, on South Ann Street, in Fells Point, served immigrant patrons, most notably Polish immigrants. Each of these branches was built using Carnegie funds, on sites donated by Baltimore citizens.

Pratt's administration's commitment to serving immigrant communities is most apparent in the development of Branch 11. Located in Baltimore's East side, it was the center of the Jewish community. The Jewish community encompassed three square miles, bound by the Jones Falls on the west, Patterson Park on the east, Monument Street to the north, and Eastern Avenue to the south. In this community, approximately ten percent of the city's entire mileage, settled many Russian, Jewish immigrants, who, by 1920, made up 27 percent of the total foreign born population, and 4 percent of the city's total population. [24]

Jewish community members actively sought educational opportunities for themselves and their children. Initially, they tried to create a Hebrew school. When these efforts failed, they enrolled their children in public school, and sent them to Hebrew school in the afternoon. [25] In addition, community leaders worked to establish a library. For example, in 1890, the Daughters of Israel, along with the Maccabeans, established a library within the Maccabean settlement house on East Baltimore Street.[26], [27]

Into the twentieth century, community members continued to work for more educational facilities in East Baltimore. In 1903, the East Baltimore Business Men's Association approached the Pratt Library about building a branch in the East Baltimore community. The Pratt Central Library was located downtown in the financial district, was too far from the Jewish section of town for it to be used frequently by East Baltimore residents. The Pratt administration, however, was unable to acquire funding for construction of a branch at that time. [28]

A year later, the president of the Maccabeans wrote the Pratt administration, offering to provide a large, well lit reading room within the East Baltimore Settlement house for a library, if the Pratt would provide the books.

....if your library will undertake to furnish the books, magazines, and librarians... we will be able to put at your disposal a large a (sic) well-lighted room on the first floor of the building at No. 1 204 East Baltimore St, free of rent or charge of any kind for light, heat, or janitor service. [29]

No response to this letter has survived, and it is possible that the Pratt administration did not respond, since the next Maccabean letter to the Pratt administration, offering to pay all expenses for a Branch library, and provide the books, mentions none. [30]

This final Maccabean offer, requiring no fiscal commitment on the part of the Pratt Library, was accepted. Steiner explained, "In case we assumed the responsibility of the supervision of the station, we should expect, of course, that the librarian should be chosen after consultation with us, and should be a person appointed by us, and one who would be, as far as the Library were concerned, subject to our direction."[31] The Maccabeans agreed, and correspondence betw een the association and the library continued throughout November, as logistical decisions concerning the station were made.[32]

Pratt's administration's response to Maccabeans request for a branch library in their community has been criticized by revisionist historians, suggesting the decision not to fund the branch demonstrates a lack of commitment to immigrant service.[33] Indeed, the Library agreed to only guide the new branch, and offered no fiscal support. It is important to note that this was most likely the only answer the administration could provide. Funding for the library system had not increased since its opening; the library still received $50,000 annually from the City for running the main library and the branches. With the budget strained to the limit, there was no money left for the purchase of additional books for a new branch in East Baltimore. Despite the fiscal constraints, Enoch Pratt's administration agreed to provide professional support and gave Branch 11 the prestige of association with the Pratt Library.

The exact number of books, given to Pratt by the Maccabeans, in Station Eleven is uncertain; of the 500 books in the settlement collection, 307 were cataloged.[34] The earliest reference to size of Station Eleven's collection is found in a letter from Bernard Steiner to a trustee, in which Steiner remarks that the collection at Eleven had grown to 1337 books by the end of 1906.[35]

Station Eleven flourished, due mostly to the efforts and skill of Mrs.. Bloch, appointed custodian of Station 11 in December of 1904. According to the 1905 Annual Report, she spoke English, German, Russian, Yiddish, and Hebrew. She worked hard to make the immigrants feel comfortable and welcome. In their native languages, she was able to explain to them the many privileges offered to them by the Pratt Library.[36]

In the backs of all the minds that cooperated to create Number Eleven was the idea that it would serve as an institution to help Americanize the immigrants who made up its patronage.... Number Eleven endeavored to obtain all the foreign language books it could, confident that the transition to English would be made in due time.[37]

Mrs. Bloch herself apparently agreed with the Progressive librarian's views concerning services for immigrants. In her 1905 Annual Report, she writes, "in my estimation there is no method so well adapted to this important work, I mean that of making good loyal American citizens out of all the strangers that come here to stay, as the school and library method."[38] The following year, she explains that "...we have an opportunity to teach the half acclimated foreigner to think American thoughts and so become Americans in spirit, which is of more benefit to them, and in the end to the people among whom they are destined to live, than all other means used to Americanize foreigners put together." [39] Mrs. Bloch was effective at attracting her patrons to the Station, as her circulation records demonstrate. For example, in 1904, the library was only open 14 days, and had 121 registered patrons, yet 666 volumes circulated. [40] In 1905, the 599 patrons borrowed 17,291 books.[41]

Much like other immigrant library patrons, Baltimore's Jewish community read books on American history and culture. The items which circulated most frequently at Station 11 were American biographies, most notably, Parson Weem's Life of George Washington.[42] Mrs. Bloch believed the library services she provided for the primary patrons were invaluable to the enhancement of their lives. She explained, that "a number of young foreigners, who six or eighth months ago could not speak one word of English, now get books in physics, and kindred subjects in that language." She also noted a high demand for classical literature. [43] Light fiction circulated least among Station Eleven patrons.

Mrs. Bloch also sponsored book groups and lectures, covering a variety of topics. One group she founded debated socialism and was addressed by economic professors from Johns Hopkins University. She later explained in her annual report her motive for this event was for the attendees to gain an American perspective on the subject. [44] In addition to educating her patrons on American values, Mrs. Bloch effectively integrated the library within the larger East Baltimore community. In 1907 she reported, "A teacher at the night school for foreigners in this section came in recently because she just heard of the library and was very appreciative of its existence and of my willingness to help her and her scholars in every way."[45]

As these examples illustrated, Branch 11 exposed immigrants to American society, by allowing access to works in both non-English and English. Recent immigrants were made to feel welcome, oriented to the library, and encouraged to utilize the collection. Gradually, as patrons learned English, either through their own efforts or at night school, they began utilizing the English part of Station 11's collection.

Mrs. Bloch successfully attracted a loyal patron base for the collection, and her station rapidly outgrew its space. Annually, in her reports to the Librarian, Mrs.. Bloch stressed the need for a new building. The settlement house, while accessible to many community members, was not conducive to library activities; it was a noisy and crowded center, where many people congregated. Building a new structure would prove to be fiscally challenging, as Carnegie funds, donated in 1908, had been exhausted during the construction of libraries in other areas of Baltimore, where no branch or station previously existed. [46]

Nevertheless, the East Baltimore community and the Pratt Library administration worked together to find an eventual site for Branch 11. Eli Frank, the first Jewish Pratt Board member, worked with local Jewish business leaders, in the hopes of gaining from one of them a donation of land, but was unsuccessful.[47] Community leaders began to pressure City council members.[48] These efforts were successful, and by 1916, the Library received $10,000 from the City Council for purchase of land on which to build Branch Eleven. Although Pratt had requested $20,000, the money proved to be adequate. A location (on South Central Avenue, in East Baltimore) was acquired in the spring of 1916.[49] However, due to delays caused by World War I, the Branch 11 was not opened until November of 1921.

Traditional historians accurately point out that without the support of the Librarian of Pratt, who had the backing of the Board of Trustees, Branch 11 would not have been constructed. The political pressure applied by the Board members on the City Council members was enough to bring about the funds necessary for construction of a Branch for the Jewish patrons of Station 11.

Revisionist historians claim that the Pratt library administration was not committed to serving the needs of the immigrant population of Baltimore. They point to the Pratt Library's founder, Enoch Pratt, an educated and wealthy man, and label him an elitist, scholarly man, unaware of the educational needs of the residents of Baltimore's immigrant communities. While Mr. Pratt was a wealthy man, his motives for building the Library were altruistic, not scholarly. Pratt himself received no formal education, and believed success was achieved through perseverance and curiosity. His Library was to be a "people's university," where individuals could learn for themselves, and make their own futures.[50]

Revisionist historians criticize the Library's collection, suggesting that it was esoteric, and did not suit the needs of immigrant patrons. In reality, the books selected for inclusion at Pratt were very popular among immigrant patrons, as the high circulation rates at Branch 11 demonstrate. Further, works in languages other than English were acquired, which insured that immigrant borrowers could still be part of the library community as they learned English.

The location of the main library, in the business district of Baltimore, is cited as further evidence of the Library's lack of interest in serving immigrants. This criticism fails to consider the Library commitment to support branch libraries in various Baltimore communities. During the Progressive Era, the Library grew two fold, hardly evidence of an organization stuck in the past, as suggested by Philip Kalisch.[51]

Professional librarians who worked with Baltimore's immigrant communities worked to orient their patrons to American life and culture. These professionals were motivated by a perception that librarians should serve as Progressive reformers, encouraging recent settlers in America to strive for success in this country. The efforts of Baltimore's Pratt Library staff suggest that they perceived success as achievable through awareness of the prevailing culture, obtained through books made available by a public library.


1.A library is a collection of written, printed, or other graphic materials, which is organized and maintained for reading, study, and consultation. Those who associate with a library do so because of its proximity to their place of residence, employment, or because of their religious affiliation.

2. Learned, William S. The American Public Library and the Diffusion of Knowledge. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1924), 26. William Learned was President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching when he published this book.

3. Andrew Carnegie, a wealthy industrialist, established numerous trusts in the latter years of his life, which provided funds to community organizations for the enhancement of culture in American cities. He was also a benefactor of numerous free libraries in America, known as Carnegie libraries. He donated funds to cities, for the building of libraries, and for maintenance. He, and after his death, his foundation, gave money for libraries to urban governments only after the city demonstrated its willingness and fiscal ability to support these libraries.

4. Hereafter referred to as librarians.

5. Learned, 30.


1900: US population: 75,994,575; foreign born: 10.341,276 -- 13.6%
1910: US population: 91,972,266; foreign born: 13,505,886 -- 14.6%
1920: US population: 105,710,620; foreign born: 13,920,692 - 13%

7. Foreign born refers to individuals counted in the decennial census and designated as being born in a country other than the United States. For the purposes of this paper, immigrant patrons will be considered patrons who lived in an immigrant community. The professional literature of this time period refers to these populations as foreign born and immigrant interchangeably.

8. Settlement houses, found primarily in the slums of urban America, were community centers, established by Progressive reformers, hping to educate the poor and immigrant classes, so that their quality of life would improve.

9. Sidney H. Ditzion, Arsenals of A Democratic Society (Chicago: American Library Association, 1947); Phyllis Dain, The New York Public Library: A History of Its Founding and Early Years (New York, New York: New York Public Library, 1972); Ann Robson, "The Intellectual Background of the Public Library Movement in Britain," Journal of Library History, 11 (July 1975): 190-204.

10. See the Narragansett Pier Conference, Library Journal 31 (1906) 65, 72. At this conference, various urban librarians presented papers on the potential American urban libraries had to create solid American citizens in immigrant communities, by directing their leisure reading.

11. The Progressive movement is noted for its attempt to bring about self-reformation, by restoring morality, economic individualism, and civic purity. Progressive reformers hoped to see the elevation of the urban classes to a higher standard of individual behavior, and, some have suggested, to see the urban class recreated in the reformers images. Paul Boyer, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America: 1820-1920, (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1992): 190.

12. Rivka Shpak Lissak, Pluralism and Progressives: Hull House and the New Immigrants, 1890-1919, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 15.

13.Haynes McMullen, "Service to Ethnic Minorities Other than Afro-Americans and American Indians," in A Century of Service: Librarianship in the United States and Canada (Chicago: American Library Association, 1976), 49.

14. "Books for Immigrants," New York Libraries 1:98 (July 1908).

15. Michael Harris, "The Purpose of the American Public Library in Historical Perspective: A Revisionist Interpretation," ERIC paper, ED 071668 (1972); Michael Harris, "Portrait in Paradox: Commitment and Ambivalence in American Librarianship, 1876-1976," Libri 26 (December 1976): 283-289; Rosemary DuMont, "The Large Urban Public Library as an Agency of Social Reform, 1890-1915," (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1975); Philip Kalisch, The Enoch Pratt Free Library: A Social History (Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1969).

16. Charles Hirschfield, Baltimore, 1870-1900: Studies in Social History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1941), 24.

17. Jo Ann Argersinger, "The City That Suits Everybody: Baltimore's Clothing Industry," The Baltimore Book: New Views of Local History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), 81-101.

18. Kalisch, 54.

19. Enoch Pratt Free Library, Annual Report, 1887, 6.

20. Kalisch, 71.

21. Libraries during the Progressive era acquired materials only if they were of "high moral fiber," believing that a public library collection should represent the highest of ethical quality in American culture.

22. Henry James to Bernard Steiner, 27 November 1893, Enoch Pratt Free Library Correspondence. For librarians' goals regarding book selection for immigrant communities, see John Foster Carr, What the Library Can Do For Our Foreign Born," Library Journal (October 1913), 566-68.

23. Board members were aware of areas of Baltimore without access to library services. Included in library trustee Charles Bonaparte's personal papers is a map of Baltimore, with the ethnic communities delineated and large X's where a potential branch library could be placed. The map was sent to Bonaparte by Bernard Steiner, Librarian, along with a letter explaining the latter's concern that Pratt was not expanding fast enough.

24. See 1920 Census of Population.

25. Stanley Rubenstein, "The Role of the Trustees and the Librarians in the Development of Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Free Library of Philadelphia: 1880-1914" (Ph.D. Dissertation, Goerge Washington University, 1978), 169.

26. The Daughters of Israel were a women's garment workers union, committed to recruiting immigrant members. The Maccabeans were a Jewish social group, with political power in the City.

27. W.E.Jackl,"Station Number Eleven of the Enoch Pratt Free Library," Journal of Library History(1972), 144.

28. Ibid.

29. Letter from Joseph N. Ulman, President of Maccabeans to Samuel H. Ranck, Assistant Librarian, Enoch Pratt Library, Baltimore, dated July 13, 1904. Letter is in the archives of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

30. Letter from Joseph N. Ulman to Bernard Steiner, November 1, 1904.

31. Letter from Bernard Steiner, Librarian, Enoch Pratt Free Library, to Joseph N. Hulman, dated November 2, 1940.

32. Custodian was the term used by Enoch Pratt Free Library for the head librarian of a branch or station. Librarian was a title reserved for the head librarian of the entire library system. Stations were initially built within an existing building, as a temporary measure, until a Branch could be built in its place. Branch Eleven was referred to initially as Station 11, until the final structure was built, in 1916, near the settlement house where the Station originated.

33. See Philip Kalisch.

34. Enoch Pratt Free Library, Annual Report 1905, 9.

35. Letter from Bernard Steiner to Henry P. James, dated November 5, 1906.

36. Enoch Pratt Free Library, Annual Report 1905, 33.

37. Jackl, 147.

38. Enoch Pratt Free Library, Annual Report 1908, 41.

39. Enoch Pratt Free Library, Annual Report 1909, 59.

40. Enoch Pratt Free Library, Annual Report 1904, Circulation Table.

41. Enoch Pratt Free Library, Annual Report 1905, Circulation Table.

42. Enoch Pratt Free Library, Annual Report 1905, 33-34.

43. Enoch Pratt Free Library, Annual Report 1906, 43-44.

44. Enoch Pratt Free Library, Annual Report 1908, 40.

45. Enoch Pratt Free Library, Annual Report 1907, 39.

46. At the request of the Pratt Library Board of Trustees, Carnegie donated $500,000 to the Pratt Library in 1906, for the construction of branch libraries.

47. "To Campaign for Library Branch," Sun 10 January 1914, p. 3.

48. Baltimore, Maryland, Journal of the Proceedings of the First Branch City Council 1914-1915, 406-407.

49. Enoch Pratt Free Library, Annual Report, 1916, 12-18.

50. Kalisch, 90-91.

51. Kalisch, 100.