Historical Highlights

Providence Public Library through 135 Years…

1884 – Fiske Harris Collection on slavery and the rebellion purchased for $2,000.  The sum of $1,909 was a gift to the Library, thus leaving $91 to be directly spent for it from the Library funds.  (In 1862, funds were collected for the purpose of establishing a hospital library at Portsmouth Grove Hospital, a project that was never carried through.  These funds were then voted by the trustees of the fund to be given to the Providence Public Library for the express purpose of purchasing the Fiske Harris Collection.)

1887 – Mr. Albert Jenkins Jones of Rome, Italy, donated the first Italian Collection of books and also a fund for adding to the collection.

1889 – Library acquires a special industrial collection (at a cost of $755) based on recommendations of specialists.

1890 – Providence Public Library became a depository of US Government Documents.

1890 – May 11 – Library opens to the public for service on Sundays.

1891 – February 13 – A clerk was hired to handle reference questions ONLY.  Prior to that, any clerk that a patron could find could be asked a reference question.  This was the beginning of the Information Desk.

1891 – The Updike Collection of 150 pamphlets and other publications, mostly 17th and 18th century, accumulated during five successive generations of the Updike Family, was presented to the Library by Mr. Daniel Berkeley Updike of Boston.

1892 – Approximately 120 music scores were purchased, establishing the Music Collection.

1894 – A trade catalog collection is established.

1896 – June 18 – A public appeal for funds is printed in the newspaper. A total amount of $1,300 was contributed. 

1897 – Pictures began to circulate to the public.

1897 – February 12 – At the Annual Meeting of the Board on the recommendation of the Library Committee, William E. Foster was elected Librarian with a salary of $4,000 for the ensuing year. 

1898 – The Library was opened every day of the year.  The hours were 10 a.m. - 9 p.m. on ordinary days; and on Sundays and holidays from 2 - 9 p.m.

1899 – Total book stock was 88,723.

1900 – May 1 – Borrowing privileges are increased to two books on one card.

1900 – Books on foreign literature included German, Italian and Spanish.

1900 – May 26 – Collection on the American Civil War presented to the Library by the Rhode Island Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society (690 vols.).

1900 – June – The George H. Smith Scrapbook Collection on the American Civil War was presented to the Library (29 vols.).  They begin in 1860,-extending nearly through 1864, without a break.  The right of ownership of these scrapbooks remains with the heirs of Mr. Smith, who very cautiously deposited them here for safekeeping and for a wider usefulness.

1900 – A Browsing Room with popular books in all fields was established.

1900 – The Barnard Club Collection of educational literature (68 vols.) was received on November 7 and placed with the Library’s own collection of about 1,000 vols. of educational literature.  Dr. Henry Barnard, the first Superintendent of Public Schools in Rhode Island, in whose honor the club is named, died in Hartford, Connecticut on July 5, 1900.  A portrait of Dr. Barnard was presented to the club by his daughters and hung in the Barnard Room.

1901 – Books on foreign literature now included German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Armenian and Yiddish.

1901 – Expenditures for the first year in the Renaissance Building totaled $28,000.

1901 – November 1 – 66 scrapbooks on the Civil War were deposited at the library which belonged to the late Honorable John Russell Bartlett, U.S.N., by whose courtesy they were deposited here; but, like the George H. Smith Scrapbook Collection, they most admirably supplemented the other publications in the collection.  This gift was accompanied by an actual gift from Captain Bartlett of other valuable works.

1901 – Gifts are received for the purchase of U.S. Patent Specifications and Drawings.

1901 – First year in which the experiment of sending collections of books to points remote from the library building has been put into operation.  There have been four deliveries made to the Branch Avenue School, (one of the most remote from the library building), namely in May, June October and November.  The total number of volumes sent was 429, and these were re-issued to the pupils by means of a charging system, at the school building, under the direction of the principal, Mr. William H. Eddy.  One hundred and twenty-eight volumes were forwarded to the Hope Street High School, in December, but not re-issued, and the same is true of the two deliveries made to the Mount Pleasant Girls’ Club (“Senior Branch” and “Junior Branch”) including 53 volumes in all.  In all, 610 volumes have thus been sent out of the library building.  The total circulation of the volumes at the Branch Avenue School was 1,162 but with the 429 volumes sent there deducted, there is a net difference of only 733 to add to the circulation at the main library. 

1907 – March 1 – All books in foreign languages are brought together in one room known as the Foreign Language Department.

1908 – November 13 - Nickerson Architectural Collection, comprising 790 volumes and valued at $5,000 was given in memory of the late Edward E. Nickerson, whose death occurred on March 15, 1908 by his daughter Miss Lyra Brown Nickerson. 

1910 – The first Children’s Story Hour is held at Central Library.

1912 – Name of the “Issue Department” changed to “Circulation Department.”

1913 – A collection of more than 2,100 volumes comprising the music library of William Harkness Arnold was presented by his wife Mrs. Jeannie Oliver Arnold.  Mr. Arnold was the organist at St. Stephen’s Church.

1913 – February 13 – The 35th Anniversary of the Library is celebrated at the University Club.

1913 – April – A public appeal made.  Contributions to the amount of $10,400 were received.

1916 – Lyra Brown Nickerson gives $2.5 million.

1917 – January – Library begins to use Library of Congress catalog cards.

1920 – November 6 – For the borrowing of books at the Central Library, a so-called Identification Card is adopted.

1920 – November 12 – In anticipation of the erection of an addition to Central Library, Trustees set aside securities in the par value of $900,000, known as the Building and Development Fund.

1921 – February 11 – Trustees instruct the architects to make working drawings of their plans for the extension of the building.

1922 – November 7 – A deposit of books is sent to the Providence Chamber of Commerce, which becomes known as the Business Men’s Library.

1923 – Frederick A. Arnold Collection received from Frederick Augustus Arnold, namely Mr. Arnold’s own library. This unusual collection represented the accumulation of many years, the books alone numbering more than 2,600 vols. 

1927 – A cooperative plan for the operation of school libraries was adopted between the Providence Public Library and the Providence School Department when the Junior High School libraries were being developed.

1938 – February – In observance of the 60th Anniversary of the Providence Public Library, a booklet entitled “The Providence Public Library: An Experiment in Enlightenment” is issued.

1938 – September 21 – Hurricane of 1938 seriously damages the new roof of Central Library. 

1940 – The Reference Room, as it was called then changed its name to “Information and Reference Department.”

1943 – The collection of books exceeded 500,000 and placed Providence Public Library among the 20 largest public libraries in the country.

1943 – “Outdoor reading room” on the lawn at Central.

1946 – November 11 – The shaft erected in 1900 equipped with a passenger elevator in the main building and made its first trip.

1949 – February – Alfred M. Williams Memorial Collection on Irish Culture established.  Mr. Williams was a former editor of the Journal, a Trustee of the Providence Public Library and a devoted friend of Ireland – its literature, history and struggle for freedom. 

1950 – July – The Business Branch moved to the Central Library in a very inadequate space in the corridor of the second floor.

1953 – Steinway Grand Piano for the auditorium given in memory of Frederick C. Freeman by Mrs. Freeman.

1953 – February 4 – 75th Anniversary of the Providence Public Library celebrated with exercises in the Providence Journal auditorium. 

1954 – Chime Clock (grandfather clock in Marble Hall) donated by Henry D. Sharpe.

1955 – Miss Edith Wetmore gave 1,100 distinguished children’s books and also more than 200 vols. in the field of fine printing and illustration.

1956 – April 29 - Italian Collection was formerly established.

1956 – Whaling Collection added to Special Collections. This was a bequest from the late Paul C. Nicholson, Providence industrialist.  The nearly 600 logbooks and manuscripts span 150 years from 1762 to 1922. Scrimshaw, boat models, harpoons, a harpoon gun and whale stamps also contribute part of the gift.

1956 – December – By agreement with the Supervisor of Schools for the Providence School Department and the Librarian of the Providence Public Library decided that the cooperative program for the operation of school libraries had served its purpose and it was, therefore, dissolved effective January 2, 1957.  Of the total public library book stock of 20,532 volumes, 3,427 were transferred to the Library.  The schools were allowed to keep the remainder.

1957 – In 80 years of existence, just under 50 million books were circulated for home use.

1958 – “Once Upon A Time,” our own live television story-telling program for children appeared on WJAR-TV Saturday mornings, winning considerable praise and critical acclaim.

1959 – Weekly radio book program on WEAN radio began. “Let’s Talk About Books” was an unrehearsed, informal discussion about books, authors and library services.

1960 – The Irish Collection became known as the George W. Potter and Alfred M. Williams Memorial on Irish Culture.

1964 – PPL designated as the Principal Public Library for the State of Rhode Island.

1964 – First Bookmobile service in Providence to serve children in areas remote from branch libraries and some needy sections of the inner city.

1964 – Henry S. Chafee Book Fund established with $23,571.58 from his family, friends and library trustees.  In his will, Mr. Chafee also provided $10,000 for the establishment of the Clarence E. Sherman Book Fund.

1964 – A major change in the telephone system enables librarians throughout the system the ability to check availability of another copy at Central or another branch.

1966 – The Business-Industry-Science Department circulated nearly 40,000 books and answered 30,000 requests for information.

1970 – “Open Stacks” policy went into effect allowing readers easy access to most books.

1970 – Two weekly radio programs gave listeners an opportunity to hear our staff discuss books and library-related topics.  “Speaking of Books” was broadcast on WEAN Tuesday evenings and on Sunday evenings. “The Bookmen Speak” was broadcast on WPRO to talk informally about books, services and current library trends.

1971 – July 1 – Providence Public Library joined many other libraries using the services of the RI Department of State Library Services’ Processing Center. Over one-half of our acquisitions were ordered and completely processed by the center.

1972 – Charles Potter Memorial Collection established.

1973 – A microfiche reader-printer was purchased.

1973 – Take Home Art collection of framed reproductions and posters began.

1973 – Women’s Index began to provide access to information for, about and of interest to women.

1978 – February 5 – Providence Public Library Centennial Celebration.

1983 – Multiprocessing computer system purchased through Champlin Foundation grant enabled provision of service to several other libraries, as well as tying together other operations.

1983 – Providence Public Library’s Data Processing Department became the national test site for an automated book acquisition system.

1984 – CLAN (Cooperating Libraries Automated Network), thanks to the Champlin Foundation.  PPL will have all its records and those of 9 participating libraries in machine readable format.

1987 – Installed computer terminals, allowing us to cease production of catalog cards and allowing online access to the Library’s collections to the public.

1988 – Literacy Project began with the awarding of an LSCA grant to inaugurate a “Literacy Information, Support and Referral Service.”

1988 – October 27 - Central Library reopens the Washington Street entrance.

1988 – November - Online catalogs and CD-ROM Public Access Catalogs now available for public access, allowing access to the CLAN database by author, title and keyword.

1988 – November 13 – Renovation Grand Reopening celebration with over 1,000 people attending on Sunday.  A weeklong series of events followed.

1989 – General Assembly designates PPL Central Library as the state-wide reference center, funded by the state.  Legislation was written and guided through by Senator Victoria Lederberg.

1992 – Inauguration of the Library’s Conservator Society, chaired by Mary Ann Lippitt. This giving category established for unrestricted gifts of $1,000 and to the Annual Fund. 

1997 – The Library was selected to be a Family Place Library, a national initiative of Libraries for the Future designed to strengthen library services for very young children and their families. 

1997 – Lyra Brown Nickerson Society formed, recognizing those who have included Providence Public Library in their estate plans…through bequests, trusts or other similar gift arrangements. 

1997 – Circulating collection of CD-ROMS was established with hundreds of selections for children and adults. New English as a Second Language videos were added to the growing collection.

1998 – The digitization of more than 6,000 images in the Rhode Island Collection began.

1998 – February – The Library was selected as one of four national sites to be a Family Place.

1998 – The Library expanded its Website, changed the URL address to www.provlib.org -- allowing Rhode Islanders with library cards to remotely access collections directly from their home or office.

1998 – Family Writing Center for families of all ages started. As a result of its success, the Center was selected as a statewide blueprint for the RI Family Literacy Initiative, now available at public libraries across the state.

1999 – ProJo Archives installed on all the reference computers to allow direct access to past newspaper articles on Rhode Island subjects.           

1999 – Computer Training Classes began – these are customized computer training classes for non-profit agencies such as Federal Hill House, Urban League, Parents Making A Difference, Foster Grandparents and RI Reach.

2001 – PPL receives the National Award for Library Service given annually to one urban library nationwide by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (the chief federal agency responsible for oversight and public support of libraries and museums). The award recognizes excellence in service, commitment and contribution to community. In particular, it honors libraries that “demonstrate extraordinary and innovative approaches to public service, reaching beyond the expected levels of community outreach and core programs generally associated with library services.”

2002 – With the merging of the New Bedford and Kendall Whaling Museums, Providence Public Library’s Nicholson Whaling Collection now holds the distinction of being the second largest collection of whaling logbooks (750) in the world.

2003 – The Rhode Island Center for the Book at PPL was established, and is an affiliate of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Ongoing projects include the Reading Across Rhode Island statewide reading of one book.

2004 – June - PPL unveiled its first digitized special collection in June with more than 50 images and descriptions of scrimshaw and other items from this huge and popular collection.

2009 – In July, following an historic agreement with the City of Providence whereby the CIty would assume control of the nine city-wide branch operations, PPL began its first year of operation as an independent library since opening the first neighborhood branch library in 1928.

2012 - In January, after a transforming redesign with help from Providence Children's Museum, the Library opened the Chace Children's Discovery Library - The Story Starts Here!, an early literacy/learning destination for young children and families featuring PPL's vast children's collection in an enriching and interactive environment.

2013 - Following a $4 million restoration and infrastructure upgrades to its historic 1900 Renaisssance building and 1950s addition, the Library officially offered its exquisite spaces for public and special events through a partnership with Russell Morin Fine Catering.

2015 - PPL launched ProvLibDigital.org, Rhode Island’s latest growing searchable digital repository offering the public free access to thousands of historical and significant resources.