Check out this visual storytelling piece on CityLab about the history of libraries in the US. As arts and cultural organizations struggle with the question of inclusion of under-represented communities in our spaces and on our boards, the efforts people to which people went to gain access to books may provide some insight into the issue. Especially given that the meaning and value of libraries today is no longer directly tied to books. (In fact, 150+ years ago the role of libraries was already expanding beyond a source of books.)
It is generally acknowledged that Ben Franklin started one of the first libraries in the United States, but it was privately funded and by invitation which excluded white women, blacks and poor people. According to the graphics in the CityLab piece, this just lead those groups to form their own clubs like the Phoenix Society of NY established to, (I love this phrase), “Establish Mental Feasts” and “Establish Circulating Libraries for the Use of People of Color on Very Moderate Pay.”
Women’s Clubs were established along the same lines, and when they excluded Jewish, black and working class women, those groups created their own clubs.
I think I may have mentioned before that I currently work in a historic theater that has the dubious distinction of possessing one of the best preserved Jim Crow balconies in the country. A few blocks away from us is a theater established by a black business man to serve the black community due to the lack of access in my building. Reading about a parallel history in libraries is pretty relevant to me.
Before Andrew Carnegie started to endow libraries across the country, many of these library projects were already embracing social issues like literacy, anti-lynching, and suffrage. Bookmobiles were bringing books to rural communities. Even with Carnegie’s funding and the expansion to public access, according to the graphic, it was women’s clubs that helped drive the construction of libraries to the point where having one was a staple of every community.
Even still, there was a lot of exclusion by race:
As I was reading through the CityLab piece, I saw echos of many of the questions arts and cultural organizations need to face regarding their identity.
For example, at one point the stated purpose of many libraries was to promote “desirable middle class values.” While this isn’t as explicitly stated by many arts organizations these days, it is present quite implicitly.