Images from the 1876 Report.

by Charley Seavey
School of Information Science and Learning Technologies
University of Missouri
Page written summer, 1998 While at the University of Arizona

1876 was a banner year for libraries in the United States. Almost every introductory course in schools of library and information science will list all the things that happened in that year:

  1. The American Library Association is founded.
  2. Library Journal is founded.
  3. The first edition of the Dewey Decimal Classification is published.
  4. Custer got creamed.
  5. The U.S. Bureau of Education publishes Public Libraries in the United States of America: Their History, Condition, and Management, widely referred to as the 1876 Report

The title page for the 1876 Report is reproduced here.

Most librarians, even the non-historically minded, need no introduction to the first four events listed above. Well, ok, number 4 is a ringer. The others are all still with us, albeit in rather different form than their 19th Century origins. The 1876 Report is rather a different matter. It is, to be sure, widely cited. Jesse Shera and Sidney Ditzion in writing on public libraries make extensive use of the document.1   Louis Shores and Arthur Hamlin, writing about academic libraries also make use of the Report.2   George Bobinski's classic Carnegie Libraries likewise mines the Report .3   I'm sure there are many more, but those are the volumes that happen to be within reach as I write this.

Given the topics noted above, it should be apparent that there is a lot more in the Report than just public libraries. In fact the very term "public library" has a rather different connotation in 1876 than our present definition. Most people today, and certainly most librarians, would define "public library" as tax supported, open to all, and administered by local government, or words to that effect. In 1876 "public library" was more broadly defined, encompassing any library open to any segment of the population. Hence an academic library in 1876 is, in the meaning of times, a public library. Anything not in strictly private hands is a public library. They did not, in those days, make the fine distinctions amongst type of library (school, public, academic, special) that we make today.

In fact the Report ranges widely over the library landscape of the day. The Table of Contents ranges from a historical sketch of public libraries in the 18th century through school and asylum libraries (an interesting combination, depending on your view of third graders), law, medical, scientific..... etc. The authors represented are a wide range of library luminaries of the day. Just the folks I recognize include John Shaw Billings, Henry A. Holmes, W.I Fletcher, Josiah Quincy, Justin Winsor, William Frederick Poole, Charles Ammi Cutter, Melvil Dewey, and Ainsworth Rand Spofford.

The Report is a massive document- 1187 pages long, printed on not very good paper by the Government Printing Office.4   Beyond calling some attention to it, the purpose of this page is not to present a detailed analysis. This all came about because the School of Information Resources and Library Science bought a scanner. In learning how to use the thing, I needed some images to scan. The Report is, of course, public domain, and I knew there were some nice illustrations of old library buildings included. One thing led to another, and here we are. The illustrations are linked below in the order in which they appear in the Report. Where possible I have included links to the modern versions of the libraries included here. In a couple of instances, they are in the same building! I've tried to dig up some history for each of the illustrated buildings, greatly aided by present day librarians of the institutions involved.

In addition to the page references in the Report I've added page references for Kenneth A. Breisch's Henry Hobson Richardson and the Small Public Library in America (MIT Press, 1997), a book that I have found absolutely invaluable in preparing these pages. If the Breisch reference is in Roman it is the first mention of the library in the index. If italicized it is the page number for an illustration.

If anybody has additional information to include, please email me.

The Libraries Illustrated in the 1876 Report
Library Page in
The Report
Page in
The Loganian Public Library (Philadelphia) 7 56
The Redwood Library (Newport, RI) 17 12
Wellesley College Library 91 38
Princeton University Library 101  
Concord (MA) Public Library 391 80-82
Roxbury Branch (Boston Public Library) 397 87
Northampton (MA) Public Library 441 47
Worcester (MA) Public Library 449  
Cornell Library (Ithaca, NY) 457 13
Floor Plans for Justin Winsor's proposed Library to hold 1 million volumes 473-475  
Original Boston Public Library 861, 865, 869 72, 74-75
Cincinnati Public Library 909, 913 223 5
Lenox Library (NY) 947 97
The Library Company of Philadelphia 955 56
The Ridgway Library of Philadelphia 959 106
The Apprentices' Library of Philadelphia 971