A scale model of the Providence Public Library Empire street building made during the design phase - circa 1940s

Providence Public Library History

PPL's origins 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.

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 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.”

PPL has always been a leading innovator, from open stacks, to children’s services, to online technologies and 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, PPL 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.
  • Opening of the newly designed Chace Children's Discovery Library in 2012 showcasing the Library's 60,000+ early childhood collection and resources for parents and educators.
  • Launch of ProvLibDigital.org in 2015, Rhode Island’s latest growing searchable digital repository offering the public free access to thousands of historical and significant resources.

Providence Public Library Historical Highlights

Explore some of the highlights of PPL history through this interactive timeline.

A History of the Library and its Art and Architecture