Providence Public Library History

Providence Public Library History

Providence Public Library differs from public libraries in most American cities in that it is privately governed and supported, but it serves the people in the best “public” sense of the word.  It is owned and governed by a Board of Trustees whose members are elected for four-year terms by the Corporation.

The origins of the Providence Public Library date to June 1871 when representatives from The Franklin Society, the Rhode Island Society for the Encouragement of Domestic Industry, The Franklin Lyceum, and the Association of Mechanics and Manufacturers first met to form a Free Public Library, Art Gallery, and a Museum of Natural History. The group planned that the libraries of each society would be merged for the free use of the members and for general reference by the public.

A charter was granted by the Rhode Island General Assembly in 1874, but it soon became evident that the proposed institution was too comprehensive. A new charter granted in April 1875 provided solely for a public library and is the one under which the Providence Public Library operates today.

The Library first opened its doors to the public in February 1878. It was located on the second floor of the Butler Exchange in what is now Kennedy Plaza. In two short years, larger quarters were secured on Snow Street between Westminster and Washington Streets.

Writing in The Providence Public Library: An Experiment in Enlightenment, in 1937, the Library’s second chief librarian Clarence E. Sherman noted that it was in those quarters for the next 20 years that William E. Foster (the Library’s first librarian, who served from 1877 – 1930) “developed a public library whose methods and practices were observed with interest by the entire library world.”

The Library’s use increased, necessitating a new, more spacious building. Ground was broken in 1896 on the Library’s present location on Washington Street, and with an extraordinary gift totaling $268,500 from Rhode Island philanthropist John Nicholas Brown (at right), the classic Renaissance building was completed at a final cost of $387,000. It was opened in March 1900 with 93,000 volumes and 39 employees.

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