American Public Libraries in the Great Depression


Charles A. Seavey

This paper is a web based version of a presentation at the International Federation of Library Association Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, August 20, 2002. The theme of the session at which this was presented was "Libraries in Times of Adversity." A somewhat different version of this was published as "The American Public Library during the Great Depression" Library Review vol. 52, no. 8, 2003. The page here is the most complete version of the story thus far.

The Great Depression certainly qualifies as a time of adversity. However, there is a saying in the United States "Libraries will get you through times with no money better than money will get you through times with no libraries." As it happens the vigorous growth of the American public library between 1930 and 1940 demonstrates the truth of that statement. There are several other things that the growth between 1930 and 1940 demonstrates, chiefly the fact that the American public library is very much a community phenomenon with its roots sunk deeply in the soil of small town America. At least that is the interpretation I am putting on what we shall get to in a bit.

Before launching into our story it may be necessary to briefly sketch in the nature of government in the USA as part of the case I am about to make depends on understanding the relationship of the various governmental units involved. Government in the USA is multi-leveled, and very decentralized. Public libraries are usually agencies of, and funded by, the lowest level of government: town/city, or county level. States, for all of the 19th century and much of the 20th, made little or no financial contribution to library service- and practice varied greatly among the 50 states and territories. The federal, or central, government did not contribute funding to public library service until the 1950s. So, during the Depression, any public library development in the country was still a local community driven phenomenon.

The unit of analysis in what follows is largely the year in which a public library that survives to this day was founded. I have over 8300 communities in my spreadsheet, and firm founding dates for libraries in 7.557 of them. It is those 7557, or a subset of them, that forms the basis for the following discussion. Clearly there have been a lot more than 8300 odd libraries founded in the United States over the years- I am dealing with just those that survived to exist in the mid 1990s. This is not exactly a sample, but it certainly is not every public library that ever existed in the USA either.1

In this paper I am using the modern definition of public library: open to all, tax supported, operating as an agency of government. This model developed with the founding of Boston Public Library in 1854. To simplify a complex story, the founding of Boston Public established the principle that public libraries would be funded and administered by local units of government: villages, towns, and cities. As the idea of public libraries spread west from Boston we can add counties to that list of local government units as funding agencies. The word "local" is always the key point to remember.

The growth curve you see here represents surviving libraries founded between 1800 and 1980. Starting in 1886 the multi-millionaire steel magnate Andrew Carnegie started granting funds to towns and cities in both the United States and the English-speaking world for construction of library buildings. In the United States 1418 municipalities received funds from Carnegie between 1886 and 1919. The Carnegie grants started accelerating the growth curve in 1890, but you will notice that the end of the Carnegie grants did not slow growth at all. In fact nothing much seems to have slowed growth, and therein lays the genesis of this paper.

We have established that the American public library was a local phenomenon with no funding from state or national sources. Furthermore the Great Depression was certainly a time when most local governments would seemingly have little discretionary money to spend on public institutions that were not fundamental to maintaining life and health. Yet there is the growth curve, about which something must be said.

The growth in public libraries during the depression was not, however, uniformly distributed across the entire country. During the 1930-1940 decade a total of 765 libraries that survived were founded in 48 states. However only nine states, contributed 54.8% of the total growth in the country. Normally I would have stopped counting states once we reached 50% of the growth, but that would have excluded my (then) current home in Missouri from the study, and we can't have that. Of the remaining 39 states, twenty-six of them, or over half the nation, collectively accounted for fewer than ten libraries each during the same period.

The big nine, in order, were Iowa, Texas, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Illinois, New York, Ohio, Michigan, and Missouri. Overall the big nine account for 44% of the population of the US in 1940. The most populous states at the time were New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. The greatest library growth, however, took place in Iowa, with less than 2% of the total population of the US. Kansas, in fourth place, also has less than 2% of the population.

The place of Iowa and Kansas in the ranking was not entirely unexpected. In fact Iowa and Kansas form part of a four state region that I have been studying for the last several years. I refer to them collectively as the "heartland states." The four heartland states shown here are situated in roughly the geographic center of the continental USA, and also, one might argue, somewhere near the cultural center of the country as well. I've lived in three of them, and spent at least some time in the other.

The Heartland states have been, and remain, an area of small cities, small towns, and a by and large agricultural economy. The two largest cities, St. Louis and Kansas City, do not dominate the region economically or politically. The Heartland, on the other hand, has been, and remains an area rich in the development of public libraries. During the Carnegie years 245 towns received grants- 17% of the total nationwide. Of 46 states receiving Carnegie libraries, Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska rank in the top ten in number of grants- and Missouri ranks 17th. The area was, and remains, the heartland of public library development in the US, while hardly being anywhere near the economic heartland.

Turning to the period of the depression then, it should be no surprise that the Heartland states account for a rather large proportion of the overall growth. 157 surviving libraries were founded in the Heartland states between 1930 and 1940. Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri, as previously noted are all within the nine states contributing the greatest growth. Nebraska, while founding 24 libraries during the period, just misses, tying for 11th with the vastly more populous New Jersey. The three ranked Heartland states, with only 14 percent of the total population of the big nine, account for 34 percent of the growth in those states, and 19% of the total growth, nation-wide. You can see why I find this area so fascinating from a research point of view.

The Influence of Federal Agencies

Before turning to some case studies, there are two federal agencies that must first be dealt with. While directly legislated federal involvement, and funding, with public libraries did not come about until the 1950s, there are two depression-era agencies that enter into the picture. Both were creations of that master of governmental experimentation, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States.

The Tennessee Valley Authority

The Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA, requires some explanation before turning to public library development in the six-state region during the depression. In this present era of regional multi-national cooperation and planning it is easy to forget that in the United States 70 odd years ago anything resembling large scale cross-boundary planning was regarded with some suspicion. The TVA was the first experiment in the United States at creating a socio-economic unit transcending state lines. A government sponsored and administered socio-economic unit, moreover, that would be involved in areas previously reserved to private enterprise. The TVA, in short, was a radical departure from previous practice in American government.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was fully aware of the radical nature of his project. The TVA was conceived and authorized in the frantic first 100 days of Roosevelt's first administration. Had it not been for the magnitude of the economic disaster, and Roosevelt's charismatic grip on the reins of political power it is doubtful that something as different as the six-state region of TVA would have been created for another 30 years.

The overall goals and doings of the TVA need not occupy us here. However, along with a lot of actual engineering the TVA was engaged in no small amount of social engineering as well. Part of that social engineering involved public libraries.

Among other people hired by the TVA was one Mary Utopia Rothrock, who at age 26 had become director of the public library in Knoxville, Tennessee. 2 As the TVA started to work on the massive hydroelectric project, it required thousands of workers, and what amounted to company towns sprang up to house those workers. It rapidly became apparent that social amenities of any sort for the workers were in very short supply in the region. Rothrock was hired to supply library service to company towns such as Norris, Tennessee. Rothrock, who has been described as "a red-haired dynamo," thought it was critical to make books available to employees even in the most remote locations. She established small 4,000- to 5,000-volume libraries in stores, post offices, even filling stations. "Wherever they live or work," she declared, "the library follows." By the late '30s, TVA was circulating an estimated 13,000 books a month, many of them being read by people who had not been used to using libraries, or books for that matter.

By the mid-'40s, most of TVA's construction work was done, but the demand for books remained. TVA Chairman David Lilienthal lobbied for state support for the libraries TVA had started. In 1943 Tennessee lawmakers allocated funding to continue those in Tennessee. There are some indications that libraries in other TVA states achieved permanent funding as well, but as of this writing I do not have any details.

Despite some writing suggesting that the TVA was a major force in public library development during the depression, the numbers simply do not confirm the story. Only 12.3 percent of the growth, nation-wide, is accounted for by the TVA states. Even within the TVA region the great growth spurt in libraries does not happen until after World War II. Just a little under 15% of libraries within the TVA region were founded during the Depression. Even in Tennessee, the state most directly involved, the percentage is only a little over 15%. While some of what happened within TVA was interesting, and conceptually foreshadowed later developments, the overall effect was not that significant.

The Work(s) Progress Administration (WPA)

The Work(s) Progress Administration, or WPA, was created by President Roosevelt on May 6, 1935, as another of his "alphabet soup" agencies in response to the depression. The WPA provided relief work for unemployed persons through public work projects. Public work projects included such large scale items as dams and roads, and smaller scale items like some of the sidewalks that I walked almost daily in Tucson, Arizona. The important thing about the WPA is that it funded jobs for unemployed workers on any public projects sponsored by federal, state, or local government- and public libraries are agencies of local government. Between 1935 and 1943 the WPA provided almost 8 million jobs at a cost of 11 billion dollars, and created a legacy of public welfare that has become monumentalized through their still used buildings, roads, dams, schools, books, and art.

Some of the WPA art you see here, a poster created by a WPA artist in support of a local public library in Pennsylvania - one of our nine growth states. There has been an enormous amount of literature devoted to the WPA and the arts. As nearly as I can tell there has been neither a good overall history of the agency, nor any systematic investigation of WPA involvement with libraryland.

Starting this paper I had been aware that the WPA had provided funds to pay the salaries of individual librarians in various locations. WPA involvement with libraries turns out to be on a rather larger scale than I had known- or imagined for that matter. Louis Round Wilson's classic 1938 Geography of Reading mentions specific new construction projects, large sums being spent on "state-wide" library projects, and tantalizingly "2,502 new libraries being started in 30 states."3 Unfortunately he does not specify what type of library, and cites unpublished WPA material as his source. As of this moment I have no idea what to make of this startling figure. I have found references to statewide projects in Mississippi, South Carolina, Michigan, and Alabama, and have just barely begun to mine this particular vein. My sense is that WPA influence was focused at local and state levels, and was not an actual nation-wide effort. Clearly, there is a good deal of research left to be done on the WPA and the development of libraries during the Depression.

Two Case Studies

Having set some nationwide context we turn now to the stories of surviving libraries founded during the period from 1930 to 1940. If I were to try and tell all 765 tales this would be a very long page indeed, so I have tried to select two that are interesting, or illustrate a point I wish made. This is neither random, not scientific, but, I hope indicative of the times.

Fairport Harbor, Ohio4

Fairport Harbor, Ohio dates back to the end of the 18th century, having been founded by ex-Revolutionary war soldiers hoping to establish a major trading port. Unfortunately some other folks were founding Cleveland, just to the southwest of Fairport Harbor at around the same time. That is the large colored in area southwest of the Fairport Harbor's red star on the map.

The population of Fairport Harbor never got really large. The population in 1930 was 4,972 (which turned out to be the high point,) but had fallen to 4,528 by 1940, and is presently 3,180. Until the 1880s the town was largely populated by descendants of the original settlers. During the 1880s Finnish and eastern European immigrants started arriving- a group that would have an impact on library development. The recent arrivals started the beginnings of a school system for the town, and it is in the schools that the roots of the later public library started to grow. Another part of their legacy lives on in a special Finnish and Hungarian book collection in the public library.

In the 1920s the school district established a library in a supply room of the grade school. The Superintendent was canny enough to order one thousand volumes from the state library of Ohio, and declared that the school library would also serve the general public. While open to the public, it was not a public library in the modern sense. At first school teachers doubled as part time librarians, although later in the decade a full time librarian was hired.

With the arrival of the depression, the record notes "...a need for greater library facilities." The school superintendent, R.A. Greig, who seems to have been a clever fellow, decided it was time for a new building. The federal Civil Works Administration, which became part of the WPA shortly thereafter, was working on other projects in the area. Greig proposed that the town furnish the materials, if the CWA would furnish the labor to build a new library building. In the end the CWA provided some of the materials as well. Work started in January of 1934, and despite delays due to cold weather, was opened in July, 1934.

The arrangement was interesting. The building is right next to the High School, which used the bottom floor as the "domestic science" laboratory. The library was, and is, housed on the main floor. The building received an addition in 1940, which is, I think, on the left side of the picture as you are looking at it. The basement area eventually evolved into a general purpose room- band practice is mentioned, along with tea, and theatricals.

Funding for the library operation was transferred to the library board with the new building. The school, however, paid the heating and light bills, and retained use of the basement. The joint school-town administration lasted until at least 1969 although presently the library seems to be constituted and governed along more traditional lines.

The school district connection with the public library, while not uncommon, is not what could be called usual practice. Having said that, there are other instances of school-public library cooperation during the depression- in Williamsburg, IA, Hubbard, OH, and Bluffton, OH, for instance.

Fairport Harbor seems to have been blessed with more than the average number of administratively creative people in establishing their public library. The cooperation between school district and library board is exemplary, and bringing in the federal CWA to construct the building was certainly entrepreneurial.

Rolla, Missouri 5

There is a sign outside Rolla, on the Interstate that says "Rolla- the middle of everywhere." Well, it really is the middle of nowhere, so I did not bother with a second map.

Rolla does have some advantages that Fairport Harbor did not enjoy. It is located along a major transportation route. The Pacific Railroad arrived in 1860, and Rolla remained the western terminus until 1867. Later Route 66 passed through on it's way from Chicago to Los Angles, later being supplanted by the present Interstate 44. Rolla is also the county seat, home to a branch campus of the University of Missouri, and has a large federal operation centered on the U.S. Geological Survey and a nearby Army base. For all that, a public library came late to Rolla, although this is not uncommon in Missouri which lags behind the other Heartland States in terms of library development. The population in 1930 was 3,670, growing to 5,141 by 1940.

There is some evidence that unemployment was not as bad in Rolla as it was in other places during the Depression. Government, as noted, was a large employer, along with regionally important grocery and dairy distribution firms. In addition a major shoe manufacturer opened a plant in 1934, increasing employment opportunities. Rolla was also winter home to the largest motorized circus in the world, although I am not sure what effect that had on employment.

Rolla is an almost archetypal public library- founded through the activities of women's clubs concerned with the availability of reading material for children. The library originally opened in 1934, as the Children's Library of Rolla, in the basement of a local school. Shelving was donated by the two lumber yards in town, and cataloging by the librarian of the nearby Missouri School of Mines. The Girl Scouts made pockets for the lending cards, while the Women's Clubs had painting parties to decorate the walls with murals and designs. Book donations built up a collection of 1,250 volumes by 1936, and the library was staffed by volunteers one and a half days a week.

In April of 1938 moving to a tax supported system for both the library and city parks was proposed and passed by the voters, 388 to 31. The Children's Library became the Free Public Library and the Mayor appointed a library board. The Board initiated correspondence with the WPA in July of 1938 asking for WPA assistance for the library. I have found no record of the reply, although in Board meeting minutes in early 1939 there is discussion, and apparently dissatisfaction, with "the clerk furnished the library by the WPA." In October the Board hired a librarian to serve "not less than two hours every week day, and four hours on Saturday," for $30 a month- to be paid by the local Lions Club. The first tax money did not become available until January of 1939: $137.91.

Only one other item is worth noting here. A fairly extensive study of Rolla in 1938, unattributed and in typescript form, states "The population is composed chiefly of persons of native born American stock. There are no racial problems" At the Board meeting of December 20, 1938, it was decided to open the library for two additional hours on Saturday afternoon "for colored children." I guess "racial problems" depend on ones point of view.

In 1941 the WPA built a library for Fort Leonard Wood- the above mentioned Army base. The Rolla Free Library became "affiliated" with the base library, although I do not know the exact nature of the arrangement. Whatever it was, it benefited Rolla because the library inherited some 4,000 books from the base library when it closed in 1943- whether as a result of the demise of the WPA in December of 1942, or some other factor I do not know. Fort Leonard Wood was then, and remains today, a large training base for the Army.

By 1943 the demand was such that the tax levy was increased, and the library moved to quarters above a liquor store (!!) in the middle of town. By this time "a paid trained librarian" was on duty. In 1945 the library moved into shared quarters with the city utilities department in what had been the "Negro U.S.O Building." Twenty years later the city acquired the former federal Post Office building, seen here, and after extensive remodeling the library took over- and they remain there to this day.

While the Rolla Free Library did gain some benefit from the WPA, federal money was nowhere near as important as it had been in Fairport Harbor. The impetus, and all the money, were strictly local.


The expansion of the American Public Library in the teeth of the Great Depression demonstrates very clearly the importance of the institution to American society. Any institution for which the American populace is willing to tax itself to support occupies an important place in the country. We have seen that while the growth of the public library was not uniform across the country, it was, nonetheless, a nation-wide phenomenon- 48 states started new libraries. We have also seen that while some federal money was involved it was local funds and local initiative that was largely responsible for the new libraries. If Rolla, Missouri is what we might think of as a typical, albeit a little late, development, Fairport Harbor, Ohio has a rather more unusual tale to tell. Given the almost infinite variety in the composition of small town America, such differences are hardly surprising. In any case the Depression years demonstrate yet again the strength of the local public library in American society.