Alternatives to Public Libraries

by | Jul 11, 2022

America’s past, is replete with examples of voluntary, cooperative associations which provided for the many needs of the citizenry. One of the most striking examples is the evolution of libraries in pre-Civil War America. Even today, alternatives to tax-sup-ported libraries exist.

Proponents of government programs often contend that the services provided by the government could not be furnished by the private sector. It is in the public interest, they argue, that the government compels individuals to support these programs with their tax dollars. Among the most sacred of these programs are public schools and public libraries, supposedly the bastions of democracy.

However, such arguments ignore the lessons of history, for America’s past, is replete with examples of voluntary, cooperative associations which provided for the many needs of the citizenry. One of the most striking examples is the evolution of libraries in pre-Civil War America. Even today, alternatives to tax-supported libraries exist.

Early Libraries

The first settlers in America had little time for reading. Their lives were spent in a near-constant struggle for survival. 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. The Massachusetts Bay Company sent 54 religious works to Salem to aid in the conversion of Indians. 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.

In the 1720s, Benjamin Franklin formed a group in Philadelphia called the Junto. The primary purpose of the Junto was to meet for intellectual discussion, with members presenting papers on various topics. Because of the nature of this group, references were made to a wide variety of books. However, the members were not always familiar with these books. In time, Franklin suggested that the members pool their collections, storing them at the Junto’s meeting place. Franklin believed that “by thus clubbing our books to a common library, we should, while we lik’d to keep them together, have each of us the advantage of using the books of all the other members, which would be nearly as beneficial as if each owned the whole.”[1] However, a year later, due to a lack of care, the books were separated and returned to their owners. But this experiment gave Franklin another idea.

The Rise of the Subscription Library

On July 1, 1731, 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 1733 the Book Company of Durham, Connecticut, was established. In the spirit of these libraries, the Articles of Subscription stated that:

being desirous to improve our leisure hours, in enriching our minds in useful and profit- able knowledge by reading, [we] do find ourselves unable so to do for the want of suitable and proper books. Therefore that we may be the better able to furnish ourselves with a suitable and proper collection of books. . . . do each of us unite together, and agree to be copartners in company together . . . to buy books.[2]

Because of the voluntary nature of these associations, each library varied in the conditions of subscription. Most had a yearly fee of less than one dollar. The more expensive libraries often resembled social clubs. While most libraries contained fewer than 1,000 titles, and consisted mainly of books of general interest, many were suited to particular interests, e.g., mechanics, theology, history, agriculture, science, law, medicine, or music. Essentially, the subscription library offered its materials to those who paid a fee, i.e., subscribed to the service.

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 percent 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 a $1.50 initiation fee and $2 per year. Nonmembers could use the reading room for 50 cents per month.

To satisfy the public’s appetite for romance and popular fiction, many printshops and booksellers rented books for a small fee. One of the first of these rental “libraries” was established in Annapolis in 1762. That venture soon failed, but the idea caught on and spread to the larger cities in the colonies. This form of library often called a circulating library, had its greatest popularity in the 50 years after the Revolution.

One of the more interesting examples of the circulating library was the “Book Boat” which traveled along the Erie Canal from about 1830 to 1850. Traveling between Albany and Buffalo, the boat would dock at towns along the way, renting its literature for two cents per hour or ten cents per day. While the circulating library certainly catered to the less serious reader, it did provide an important service.

Demise of Voluntary Association

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,” the statists 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.

The advocates of public libraries presented, and continue to offer, a variety of arguments supporting their cause. In an attempt to gain Constitutional legitimacy, statists assert that public libraries protect our rights and liberties, as well as promote happiness. Because of the number of books purchased by libraries, they argue, more books can be published, thus insuring freedom of speech. Libraries also provide information on hobbies, travel, and the arts, which encourages knowledge of culture, and therefore promotes happiness.

However, freedom of speech is possible only in a free society, in which the initiation of force has been abolished. Freedom of speech results in ideological competition—a marketplace of ideas, in which individuals are free to support those ideas they voluntarily choose. Extorting funds from individuals to purchase books effectively makes them supporters of ideas to which they may be diametrically opposed. The result is the publication of many books of dubious quality, at taxpayer expense, which few read.

The assertion that public libraries promote happiness is, at best, ludicrous. Whose happiness? And at whose expense? And even if this claim were true, it is irrelevant. A thief could argue that robbing my house would promote his happiness, but his action is still theft and still immoral. The principle does not change if the government is doing the taking.

The avowed purpose of the public library is “to serve the public. Not some of the public. All of the public.”[3] This, of course, is impossible. It would require volumes of information on every imaginable topic, regardless of how small the number of potential users. Libraries, like restaurants, must specialize in order to appeal to the particular tastes of their clientele. Those who try to be everything to everyone eventually are nothing to anyone.

In his later years, industrialist Andrew Carnegie became one of America’s most prolific philanthropists. From 1897 to 1919, Carnegie donated nearly $50 million to communities across the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. Carnegie once remarked:

I choose free libraries as the best agencies for improving the masses of the people, because they give nothing for nothing. They only help those who help themselves. They never pauperize. They reach the aspiring, and open to those the chief treasures of the world—those stored up in books.[4]

This spirit of self-improvement is the same spirit that led the early colonists to establish libraries voluntarily.

An unfortunate aspect of Carnegie’s philanthropy was his insistence that communities tax themselves to support the libraries he established. Rather ironically, Carnegie was promoting self-help, while insisting on compulsory taxation. But the essential point here is that Carnegie’s voluntary donations were used to provide library services to millions of people.

Enoch Pratt, who founded the public library in Baltimore with his donation, established an endowment of over $800,000 to provide funds for the upkeep of the library. Carnegie also established endowments for four Pennsylvania libraries, before he turned to the use of tax dollars.

Even without the philanthropic efforts of the wealthy, the poor need not be without library services. The elimination of public libraries would create a vacuum that the free market would quickly fill. This was demonstrated throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

New Age of Information

With the proliferation of home and office computers, the market has developed an electronic alternative to the traditional library. Databases are available for nearly every topic, from business and health to philosophy and sociology. Undoubtedly, more will develop as a need presents itself.

One of the advantages of databases is that they provide the user with round-the-clock access, enabling information to be gathered when it is needed. And of course, the user—not the taxpayer- -pays for the service. Just as the first libraries evolved out of mutual needs and voluntary associations among individuals, these electronic libraries are providing non-coercive means of resolving common problems. As technology improves, and competition increases, the cost, availability, and range of these services will also improve.

We live in an age of information. As our economy moves away from manufacturing, the need for information will continue to grow. Because the public library is essentially divorced from market factors, it is unable to keep pace with an ever-changing world. This gap will continue to expand as private businesses assume a greater role in the distribution of information.


1.   Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Collier Books, 1962), pp. 71-2.

2.   Elizabeth W. Stone, American Library Development. 1600-1899 (New York: The H. W. Wilson Company. 1977), p. 131.

3.   Whitney North Seymour, Jr. and Elizabeth N. Layne, For the People, Fighting for Public Libraries (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1979), p. 153.

4.   Elmer D. Johnson and Michael H. Harris, History of Libraries in the Western World (Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1976), p. 271.

First published in print in the Freeman, April 1, 1987. This article was originally published on Read the original article.

Brian Phillips is the founder of the Texas Institute for Property Rights. Brian has been defending property rights for nearly thirty years. He played a key role in defeating zoning in Houston, Texas, and in Hobbs, New Mexico. He is the author of three books: Individual Rights and Government Wrongs, The Innovator Versus the Collective, and Principles and Property Rights. Visit his website at

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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