Public libraries USA and Australia:
Today I want to acknowledge the influence of American public libraries on the growth and development of libraries in Australia. I have always regarded the USA as the home of the public library and the source of our enduring values for public libraries:
– free and open to all members of the public,
– community owned and funded,
– free of censorship and respectful of diversity.
Whilst the UK established many public libraries in the19th century, it was the USA which supported the growth in numbers and the value of open access to all for an informed citizenry. The sheer number of public libraries in the USA has influenced the way we developed our own libraries in Australia since the establishment of our own great public libraries in the 19th century.
Whilst the Melbourne Public Library, (now the State Library of Victoria) opened in 1856, the first Free Public Library in Australia was the Free Public Library, Sydney, (now the State Library of New South Wales), which opened in 1869 after the acquisition of a bankrupt subscription library. This process of converting failed subscription libraries (not open to people who were not paid up members) happened all over Australia for the next 100 years or so. I remember working for a local library which had recently converted to a truly free public library and moving the library into a newly designed and built public library building in Perth in Western Australia.
The influence of American librarianship on the growth of public libraries in Australia has been obvious since the Munn-Pitt report of 1934 reviewed the state of local public libraries in Australia and recommended a major investment in free public libraries and an improvement in the education and qualifications of librarians in Australia. Derek Whitehead provides an interesting analysis of the actual impact of the report in the Australian Library Journal but there is no denying that the comparative wealth and status of American libraries has influenced library practice and values since the mid 20th century. The philanthropy and influence of the Carnegie foundation meant that thousands of public libraries were established in the USA and worldwide, librarians educated and reviews and research undertaken through this philanthropic support of Andrew Carnegie’s endowment.
It has even been argued that the public library was an American invention since a town library was established in Boston in 1636. We know that the first modern public library in the world supported by taxes was the Peterborough Town Library in New Hampshire in 1833 and the first large public library supported by taxes in the United States was the Boston Public Library, which was established in 1848.
Whatever the conclusion, I want to acknowledge the influence that American libraries and librarianship has had on my understanding and belief in the value of public libraries on this day of celebration for the USA.
Janette Wright, 4th July 2016
Derek Whitehead AM and PM: The Munn-Pitt Report in Context, The Australian Library Journal, 30:1, 4-10.
The Tribes and the States, Penacook. http://www.sidis.net/TSChap8.htm.
History of the Peterborough Town Library. Peterborough Town Library. http://peterboroughtownlibrary.org/history/
Boston Public Library A Brief History and Description. Boston Public Library. http://www.bpl.org/general/history.htm