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.

Butler ExchangeThe 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.”

William E. Foster

Establishing what to present has been a defining characteristic of the Library, Foster stressed the importance of establishing “contacts” – which he believed “essential to the best service.” “‘Contact’ was his word for public relations and in this respect the Library was pioneering. It involved pushing out the walls of the Library, making contacts with schools and colleges, museums, foreign groups, local industries, hospitals, the blind and with individual readers interested in self-education. It was considered to be the first library to cooperate with such groups by encouraging visits to the library, lectures, buying books requested by readers, notifying city officials and businessment about new books in their fields, and loaning small collections of books to organizations.”1

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, 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.

Central Library 1900

1900 Central Library – located at 225 Washington Street, Providence

The building of the Central Library

1893 – 1895 -- Initial lots purchased –Washington and Greene Streets.  The cost of the structure in its completed state was estimated at $200,000.

1896 – August 3 – Ground was broken for the “fragment” of the building which at that time seemed to be all that there would be a possibility of constructing for some time to come.

1896 – Contracts awarded to John W. Bishop and Co. of Providence, for a cost of about $67,000 Fenton Metallic Manufacturing Co. of Jamestown, N.Y. for $21,045 for the “stack construction.”

1893 – 1899 -- At a total cost of $387,000 the initial building was built, with a large amount of the cost gifted from John Nicholas Brown.

1900 – March 15 – Official opening.

Clarence E. Sherman

The Branch Libraries

In 1926, with the Library’s 50th anniversary approaching, two studies made clear the need for an expansion plan that would enable the Library’s branches to be adequately housed and allow for realocation of space at the Central Library. It was also determined that the City of Providence would need to contribute a larger share of support for the growing system. The full-fledged, modern Providence branch library system came to fruition under the direction of librarian Clarence E. Sherman beginning in 1928 with construction of the Wanskuck Branch Library.

During the next three decades, the Library’s building program yielded four new branch buildings (Rochambeau, Smith Hill, South Providence, and Mt. Pleasant) and three converted buildings (Olneyville, Tockwotton, and Washington Park). The acquisition of the land and building costs for the branches was borne almost entirely by the Library trustees from private funds. This period of development and building culminated in 1954 with the $1,950,000 addition to the Central Library with funds provided by a City of Providence Bond Issue. This was the first time that Providence taxpayers were asked to provide funds for a library building.2

Empire Street Addition -- 1954

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1--The Providence Public Library: A Century of Service, 1878-1978, Stuart C. Sherman, 1978; p. 7-8

2, 3--The Providence Public Library: A Century of Service, 1978; p. 12

A 135-year History of Innovation…

The Library has always been a leading innovator, from open stacks, to children’s services, to online technologies.3 

Providence Public Library was considered among the first public libraries in the country to establish the following services:

  • An Information Desk, each day offering a list of books and articles for more information related to a significant news article from the morning  Providence Journal.
  • A Foreign Department with books in more than 30 languages, at one point.
  • An Art Department with recordings and sheet music. The first sheet was purchased in 1892 and “Music Notes” was a weekly column in the Providence Journal for many years.
  • Books and services for young readers.
  • Service to the blind with books in Braille.
  • A picture collection for students, teachers and designers.
  • A browsing room with popular books in all fields.
  • A single, statewide catalog, as the founding member of CLAN (now Ocean State Libraries).

In recent years, the Library has been recognized for varied achievements, including:

  • Creation of the Rhode Island Family Literacy Initiative and other innovative initiatives, particularly in the area of children’s programs and services.
  • Designation as the Rhode Island Statewide Reference Resource Center in 1989.
  • Recipient of the 2001 Institute of Museum and Library Services National Award for Service.
  • Founding member and host of the Rhode Island Center for the Book at Providence Public Library from 2003 - 2011.

Library Directors

William E. Foster -- 1877 - 1930
Clarence E. Sherman -- 1930 - 1957
Stuart C. Sherman -- 1957 - 1967
F. Charles Taylor -- 1968-1978
Annalee M. Bundy -- 1978 - 1988
Dale Thompson -- 1988 - 2014
H. Jack Martin -- 2014 to present

Historical Highlights...135 years

Image Gallery

Opening Our Doors

Library Tour - Guided historic/arhitectural tour of our 1900 building