Pittsburgh Libraries BC (earlier than Carnegie)

from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Tuesday 5th January 2021

Pittsburgh’s first libraries were nearly fifty years older than Andrew Carnegie’s arrival in the United States. These early libraries were fundamentally different from what most of us consider a library in the 21st century:

Not free for everyone

To the modern eye, the phrase “Free To The People” posted above the entrance to many Carnegie libraries means that we can use the resources they contain without having to buy them. For Pittsburghers prior to 1895, this meant no membership was required.

The first recorded attempt to open a library in Pittsburgh was made in 1788 by the newsman John Boyd. Boyd moved from comparatively cosmopolitan Philadelphia to the 30-year-old border town of Pittsburgh to work for a local newspaper. Shortly after opening a business at The Gazette, he placed ads in that newspaper and looked for 100 subscribers to help build a circulating library. At that time, about 1,000 people lived in Pittsburgh. It proved unrealistic to expect 10% of the city’s population to pay a membership fee for the library, and Boyd’s appeal failed.

The bookbinder Zadoc Cramer had better luck around 1801 when he added a lending library to his bookshop. Cramer’s library was, as Boyds would have been, a pay-to-play situation. Subscriptions are $ 1 per month. Discounts for subscriptions with a term of three and twelve months are paid for in advance. This would be the facility for most, if not all of the pre-Carnegie libraries in the city, to ensure that only those with disposable income have access to books, newspapers, and other educational and cultural resources.

Andrew Carnegie wasn’t the first to open libraries that were free to the people, but the volume and scope of his libraries turned a revolutionary idea into an expectation widespread today.

No open stacks

How lucky to be born in the age of open stacks, and how different we would find Pittsburgh’s first libraries! “Open stacks” are library holdings that library visitors can browse and select firsthand (during normal hours). In previous libraries – and indeed the first Carnegie libraries – users had to make material requests to a librarian who would bring those materials to you. When books were a rare commodity (remember Zadoc Cramer? When he bought his bookstore, this was the only place to buy books west of the Allegheny Mountains.) It made sense to be an intermediary between users and hard-to-get materials to find. As American libraries entered the 20th century, it was much easier to obtain books, magazines, and other reading materials. Advances in library practice codified the filing of library materials to make them easier for library users to find and the supervision of those resources by library staff. Until the check-out, more and more library materials were made available without mediation.

What makes impressive?

The Pittsburgh Directory for 1815 states that the Pittsburgh Permanent Library Company maintained a collection of “approximately 2,000” volumes which were “kept in a dedicated room in the courthouse.” This library was open once a week on Saturday nights. In 1831 the Franklin Reading Room, a subscription library on the corner of Grant Street and Fourth Street, gave its members access to 1,500 titles. Fast forward to 1895 when the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh opened its main office, originally designed to hold 250,000 volumes! Many additions and redesigns later, the same building currently houses more than 2.5 million items – books, musical scores, graphic novels, CDs, audio books, and more – available for Free To The People.

Pittsburgh was the starting point for Carnegie’s foray into public libraries. What he founded here in 1895 was both built on and a response to the earlier libraries.

This press release was produced by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. The views expressed are those of the author.

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