The Providence Public Library is completing its 130th year of operation. We began circulating books on February 5, 1878. Opening the library was no small task, and it was fraught with a long history of delays. In fact, it took at least a half century from concept to reality.
The first recorded suggestion that a free public library be formed was in a newspaper article in 1828, four years before Providence became incorporated as a city. 1828 was also the year that the Arcade was built, by the way, and three years later the Providence Athenaeum would be founded in that building.
When the Athenaeum got its own building in 1838, Francis Wayland delivered a speech at its opening, and exhorted the members to extend its facilities to embrace the entire citizenry of Providence. His words resonate with uncanny power to this day. “Abandon forever,” Wayland said, “and forget they ever existed, all local and petty distinctions. Let us not labor for the east side or for the west side, but for the city of Providence.” Another part of his speech is so clearly a past echo of our own mission that I will quote it at length:
“We must render knowledge, valuable knowledge, accessible to the whole community. We must collect the treasures of science and literature, and throw them open to all who are disposed to avail themselves of their benefits. We must provide the means by which the light of intellect shall shine into every house, and pour its reviving beams into the bosom of every family. And still more, we must act for the future. In our present state, no great object can be accomplished, unless we act for posterity. We must, therefore, lay the foundation of this institution in such principles, that it will grow with the growth of intelligence, widening and deepening the channels of its influence, as it passes on from age to age, more and more thoroughly imbuing every successive race with admiration of all that is great, with love for all that is beautiful, and with reverence for all that is holy.”
I need to make it clear that there were in fact many libraries in Providence throughout the 19th century—it has always been a great book town. But none of these libraries were free and open to the public. Interest in and arguments for a public library continued through the decades, but never quite reached fruition. The population of the city grew over 30% in the 1830s, but the growth culminated in the economic Panic of 1837; in the early 1840s we had the Dorr War, an attempt to liberalize the RI constitution, and even more growth. Railroads were coming in, and the population doubled between 1840 and 1850. Then came the Panic of 1856, and then the Civil War in 1860.
Cultural institutions grow best in an environment of confidence and stability, not to mention prosperity. By 1871 all energies were focused on peacetime goals, and it was a great year for our civic pride. The population was now over 100,000 (more than twice what it had been 1850). The Soldier’s and Sailor’s monument was erected at Exchange Place, Roger Williams Park was founded, and both the Providence Opera House Association and the Providence Public Library were granted charters by the General Assembly.