Pittsburgh’s first libraries predated Andrew Carnegie’s arrival in the United States by almost fifty years. These early libraries differed in fundamental ways from what most of us in the 21st century think a library should be:
Not Free to Anyone
To modern eyes, the phrase “Free To The People” inscribed over the entrance of many a Carnegie Library means we can use the resources within without needing to purchase them. To Pittsburghers prior to 1895, it indicated no membership was required.
The first recorded attempt at starting a library in Pittsburgh was made in 1788 by newspaperman John Boyd. Boyd relocated from comparatively cosmopolitan Philadelphia to the 30-year-old frontier town of Pittsburgh to work at a local newspaper. Soon after setting up shop at The Gazette, he placed ads in that paper looking for 100 subscribers to establish a circulating library. At the time, Pittsburgh’s population hovered around 1,000 people. Expecting 10% of the town’s population to pony up a library membership fee proved unrealistic, and Boyd’s appeal failed.
Bookbinder Zadoc Cramer had better luck around 1801 when he expanded his bookshop to include a lending library. Cramer’s library, as Boyd’s would have been, was a pay-to-play situation. Subscriptions cost $1 a month, with discounts offered for three– and 12-month subscriptions paid in advance. This would be the setup for most, if not all, pre-Carnegie libraries in the city, ensuring that only those with disposable income could access books, newspapers, and other educational and cultural resources.
Andrew Carnegie wasn’t the first person to open libraries that were Free To the People, but the volume and reach of his libraries turned what must have been a revolutionary idea into what is now a widely held expectation.
No Open Stacks
How lucky to be born in the era of open stacks, and how different we would find Pittsburgh’s first libraries! “Open stacks” are library collections that library visitors are allowed to browse and select from first–hand (during normal times). Earlier libraries — and, in fact, the first Carnegie libraries — required users to place requests for materials with a librarian who would bring those materials to you. When books were a rare commodity (Remember Zadoc Cramer? When he bought his bookshop, it was the only place to buy books west of the Allegheny Mountains.) putting a mediator between users and hard–to–obtain materials made sense. As American libraries entered the 20th century, books, journals, and other reading materials became much easier to obtain. Advances in library practices codified filing of library materials, to make them easier to find for library users, and monitoring of those resources by library staff. More and more library materials were made available without any mediation until the point of check out.
What Constitutes Impressive?
The Pittsburgh Directory for 1815 notes that The Pittsburgh Permanent Library Company maintained a collection of “about 2000” volumes that were “kept in a room in the Court House appropriated for that purpose.” That library was open once a week, on Saturday evenings. In 1831 the Franklin Reading Room, a subscription library at the corner of Grant and Fourth Streets, provided its members with access to 1,500 titles. Fast forward to 1895, when the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh opened its main branch, initially designed to hold 250,000 volumes! Many expansions and redesigns later, that same building currently houses more than 2.5 million items—books, music scores, graphic novels, CDs, audiobooks, and more – available for use “Free To The People.”
Pittsburgh was the starting point for Carnegie’s foray into public libraries. What he established here in 1895 was both built on, and a reaction to, those libraries that came before.