Short History of the PPL (part 2)

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According to our charter:

“The object of this corporation shall be to erect and maintain, in the city of Providence, a building suitable for, and to provide the same with, a Free Library, Art Gallery, Museum of Natural History, and collections and apparatus of the various departments of literature, art, agriculture, and science; also to promote the diffusion of useful knowledge, in all such departments. And to this end, said building shall be planned and erected to accommodate, so far as possible, both in respect to library and society requirements, and a hall for public lectures, the following societies, viz.: the Providence Franklin Society; the Rhode Island Society for the Encouragement of Domestic Industry; the Franklin Lyceum; the Providence Association of Mechanics and Manufacturers; the Rhode Island Horticultural Society; and such other literary or scientific societies, as said Trustees may admit into said building.”

Six months later, on June 15, 1871, representatives from the aforementioned groups met for the first time in the Main Street rooms of the Providence Franklin Society—which had, by the way, only a month before decided to admit women after 50 years of operation. Thus began the process of gathering books, finding a location, and raising money.

After three years of effort it became apparent that the original goal of a library, art gallery, and museum was too complex and expensive. The Trustees re-focused the plan and modeled the subsequent institution on that of the Boston Public Library, with the exception that it would not be owned and operated by the municipality, but rather by its own corporation.

Interestingly, in February of 1870, a year before our charter was granted, John Carter Brown replied to a letter in which the Secretary of State, John Russell Bartlett, had apparently suggested that Brown either endow a public library in Providence or give his collection to the city for public benefit. To support this idea, Bartlett had enclosed a copy of the charter proposed by James Lenox, another famous collector, to the New York Assembly regarding the disposition of his collection for the public good (this collection, along with the Astor Library and the Tilden Trust, formed the nucleus of the New York Public Library). Brown’s reply is typical of his no-nonsense style:

“I believe I have before told you that in my opinion, a ‘public library’ was not wanted in Providence any more than a fifth wheel to a coach. It has already a first class Athenaeum, well founded and already well endowed, and situated in the central part of town. So that anyone willing to pay $5 a year — less than a cent and a half a day, can read all the books it has on its shelves . . . Thus in my humble opinion, a more “public library” is not at all wanted. They may soon degenerate into mere political machines to be managed by politicians.”

Anyone observing the recent happenings at the Boston Public Library will appreciate John Carter Brown’s foresight, as well as that of the Trustees when they gave us that margin of independence.

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