Now quaint: The Free Library's proposed addition, as envisioned by futuristic architect Moshe Safdie in 2003.

Now quaint: The Free Library’s proposed addition, as envisioned by futuristic architect Moshe Safdie in 2003.

by Hugh Gilmore

Last week this column introduced the topic of what the media have come to call “bookless libraries.” That phrase, especially when used in headlines, conveys such a contradiction in terms it grabs attention right away.

The words don’t just puzzle people – they arouse almost immediate fear and resentment. Among people who love to read books, libraries are seen as their natural home. Books and libraries, however, in the form we’ve known them, are going to change dramatically in the coming years.

Some of the current resistance on the part of bibliophiles is rational, but much of it is based on merely technical quibbles about an emerging technology. Such arguments are akin to arguing for zippers over Velcro when talking about fasteners. The rest of this is sentimental – that is, the objections are based on people’s feelings.

People who love books really do … love … books. Their emotions, however, make no allowance for the problems presented by the physical nature of their love objects.

Part one of this series focused on the physicality of books. To most people born before about 1990, books contain pieces of paper bound within covers that are either “soft” (thin card stock) or “hard” (cloth- or paper-covered thick cardboard) bound. Most of the books they’ve known were about an inch thick, 9 inches high, and weighed about a pound.

To keep books accessible, shelves were invented and information identifying a book was printed on its “spine” (the part that shows when books are shelved). When a community of book readers decided to share a large quantity of books in common, they erected buildings to house those bookshelves. Such buildings were traditionally called “libraries” in English-speaking countries.

The word “library” itself is ultimately derived from the Latin word “liber” (meaning wood bark, parchment, and, finally, book). The names of a majority of the world’s libraries originate from that word or from another Latin word “bibliotheca” (basically translated as a “bookroom”). Hence in France: Bibliothèque nationale de France. In Spain: Biblioteca Nacional de España. In Sweden: Kungliga biblioteket. And so on.

The most interesting word in the name of Philadelphia’s library system is the word “Free.” The word is taken for granted nowadays – seen as just an unnecessary adjective in naming the city’s library. But “The Free Library of Philadelphia” – as opposed, for example, to something like the “Subscription” Library of Philadelphia – is a fairly radical concept. Our country’s earliest libraries were private co-operatives, limited to those who could afford a membership fee, or, like The Library Company of Philadelphia, (one of our most wonderful institutions), those who bought stock in the enterprise.

But our public city library is free. Anyone can “borrow” a book. All the world’s knowledge is offered free of monetary cost to every member of the public. Although the topic might sound unexciting to most people, the history of American libraries is a history of our precious and fragile democracy.

As quiet and dull as they might seem to people who do not use them, free public libraries are powerful forces in the fight for personal and public enlightenment. They give shelter to the world’s information and ideas. Making such material freely available to the citizenry seems so very basic to the notion of a democratic republic such as ours. Surprisingly, though, our Free Library of Philadelphia was not established and open for patrons until 1894.

Of course, this development was not without controversy, especially in money matters. The impetus to found the library is credited to Dr. William Pepper, with the initial funding of $225,000 donated by his uncle, George S. Pepper. “Philly being Philly,” it took four years and a court decision before The Free Library was allowed to accept the money and open its doors to the public.

Those doors were found in three small, cramped rooms in City Hall. (Imagine that: a library in City Hall. The money had finally found a home!) A year later the library moved to a concert hall at 1217-1221 Chestnut Street. According to the Free Library’s historians, library officials soon criticized their new home as “an entirely unsuitable building, where its work is done in unsafe, unsanitary and overcrowded quarters, temporary make-shifts.”

In its collective wisdom, City Hall managed to keep the library on Chestnut Street until 1910, when it moved to the northeast corner of 13th and Locust Streets. However, there is no staying an idea whose force has come: In June of 1927 our massive and beautiful Central Library opened on Logan Square. Many of the 54 neighborhood branches, some established already, the others to follow, were funded by the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

The single largest “enemy of books” encountered by the Free Library, from infancy till now, has been budget. Grants and philanthropy still help, but essentially the library is still supported by public tax dollars. (Carnegie, a prince among industrialists, was occasionally called a communist by opponents of taxation.) “More bang for the buck,” “eliminate the fat,” and “an end to frivolousness,” are but a few of the mantras chanted by the library’s enemies over the years.

Those words are truer than ever, now that we live in age where thousands are books are published every day. In the words of the comedian Stephen Wright, “You can’t have everything – where would you put it?”

Next week: Some noble experiments in answering that question. Hold on to your hats: New frontiers in librarianship!