Private library

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A private library is a library under the care of private ownership, as compared to that of a public institution.

Private libraries in the USA

The first settlers in America had little time for reading. Because many of the first colonists had fled religious persecution in Europe, the Bible was often the only book in the home. The first ministers and theologians to arrive in the New World brought larger collections of religious works with them.

The first private library in America probably belonged to Elder William Brewster, who brought his large private collection to Plymouth. The 400 books in his collection at the time of his death were primarily religious. One of the most impressive early libraries belonged to the first governor of Connecticut, John Winthrop, Jr., who brought his collection of over 1,000 titles to Boston in 1631. Winthrop was a major figure in the birth of science in America, and his collection was one of the largest and most influential scientific libraries in 17th-century America.

As life in America became more secure and education improved, the range of reading interests quickly expanded. Philosophy, political science, natural science, and modern literature became popular topics. By the 1650s most estates contained at least several books. The first bookseller appeared in Boston in 1641, and booksellers thrived in that city in the last quarter of the 17th century. But in the other colonies, citizens had to resort to ordering books from Great Britain. Indeed, when Benjamin Franklin arrived in Philadelphia in 1723, he lamented the city’s lack of booksellers.

Many of the large collections were bequeathed to towns and schools. But a lack of funds, proper storage facilities, and often a lack of interest, caused many of these collections to deteriorate. One notable exception was the collection of John Harvard, which became the foundation of Harvard College’s library in 1638. As early as 1665, the use of taxes was proposed as a means of providing library services for the town of Dorchester, Massachusetts.

On July 1, 1731, Benjamin Franklin drew up a proposal for what became the Library Company of Philadelphia. The Library Company soon attracted fifty subscribers paying a forty-shilling initiation fee and ten shillings per year. Chartered in 1742, the Library Company of Philadelphia became America’s first subscription library, and was the model for numerous similar libraries throughout the colonies.

But the cost of joining the Library Company prohibited many from doing so. As always happens in a free market, competition arose, in 1747 the Union Library Company was formed. By the 1760s, the Amicable Company and the Association Library were also in operation. When the Library Company reduced its prices in response to the competition, the Union Library merged with the Amicable Company. In early 1769, the Association Library also merged into the Union Library. Shortly thereafter, the Union Library Company joined the Library Company, once again leaving Philadelphia with one library. However, the competition made membership more affordable and improved the library’s range of works.

The subscription library concept quickly spread through the colonies.

In Charleston, South Carolina, a group of young men pooled their funds so that they might purchase materials printed in England. Within two years, there were 160 members, as well as an endowment. In New York City, 140 well-to-do citizens pledged five pounds each, plus ten shillings per year, to form the New York Society Library. Within twenty years the library had collected nearly 1,300 titles.

When a fire destroyed the Providence Library Company in 1758, a lottery was held to replace the burned books. Similarly, the social library of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, used a lottery to provide supplemental income.

One of the most amazing success stories is that of the Young Men’s Association, founded in Chicago in 1841. Within a month nearly 10 per cent of all males in the city between the ages of 15 and 35 had joined. Subscribers were offered a choice of memberships, ranging from a one- time life membership fee of $25 to a regular membership costing $1.50 initiation fee and $2 per year. Nonmembers could use the reading room for 50 cents per month.

The voluntary nature of commercial libraries made them susceptible to economic downturns, during which many citizens had to withdraw support. In turn, libraries closed their doors, leaving communities without library services.

By the mid-19th century, amid growing clamor for tax-supported schools, the idea of tax- supported libraries gained increasing support. "If a man has the right to an education," it was argued, "then why doesn’t he also have a right to the books which make that education meaningful’?" It wasn’t long before they had their way.[1]

Carnegie libraries

Andrew Carnegie was born into a poor family, working as a boy first in a cotton mill and then as a telegraph messenger. A turning point in his life came when Colonel James Anderson opened his personal library to working boys. Largely self-educated through access to this library, Carnegie used his knowledge to bootstrap himself into one of the premier industrialists of his time.

Through his investments in railroads and steel he amassed an enormous fortune. Even before he retired he vowed to donate the bulk of his fortune to charitable enterprises before he died. Libraries became a cornerstone of Carnegie’s philanthropic activities. Carnegie was a fervent believer in and articulate champion of capitalism. As he himself proclaimed, "Individualism, Private Property, the Law of Accumulation of Wealth, and the Law of Competition . . . are the highest results of human experience, the soil in which society so far has produced the best fruit." Yet despite his advocacy of free-market principles, Carnegie allied himself firmly on the side of those who believed libraries should be provided by government.

As Carnegie watched proposals for government libraries fail at the ballot box, he developed his own plan for overcoming voter resistance. He started out modestly, establishing libraries in his hometown in Scotland and then endowing libraries throughout Pennsylvania in many of the towns where he had built steel mills. These initial efforts were fully funded by his private endowments.

This created an enormous demand for Carnegie libraries. To handle these numerous requests, he granted libraries to any city that requested one as long as it met two key conditions: (1) it donated the land and (2) it committed to maintaining the library by an annual amount equal to 10 percent of the initial grant.

This formula transformed the debate over government ownership of libraries. In less than a generation, hundreds of Carnegie libraries were built in small towns throughout the United States. By the time Carnegie’s program ended in the 1920s almost 1,700 Carnegie libraries owned and operated by local government had been funded in over 1,400 communities.

This is the paradox of Carnegie libraries. Using his own fortune, Carnegie was able to establish a comprehensive public library system throughout the United States. Yet despite his ability to leave these libraries in the private sector, he essentially used them as a massive bribe to overcome the public’s resistance to financing them through taxes.[2]

Private libraries today

Despite the prevalence of government libraries, models of private libraries still persist today. At one end of the spectrum are small specialty libraries. Larger specialty libraries exist also; for example, the McClellan Funding Information Library specializes in books on grant funding for nonprofits. Financed by donors, it is a resource for the entire San Francisco peninsula region. On an even larger scale, private universities also maintain their own specialty and general-purpose libraries.

The famous Huntington Library in San Marino, California, richly endowed by Henry Huntington, the railroad magnate, gives scholars free access to its extensive collections of British and American history and literature. The Huntington Library also resembles Franklin’s subscription model because it charges membership fees to the general public to view its exhibits, rare books, art collections, and botanical gardens.

Finally the Internet brings us a high-tech alternative in the form of digital libraries. From subscription libraries funded by user fees to libraries fully endowed by generous donors, free-market alternatives to government libraries have abounded. And despite crowding out by the government model, many examples of private libraries still exist today.[2]


  1. J. Brian Phillips. "Alternatives to Public Libraries", The Freeman, April 1987. Referenced 2012-12-01.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Chris Cardiff. "The Paradox of Carnegie Libraries", The Freeman, October 2001. Referenced 2012-12-06.