Short History of the PPL (part 3)

>Another two years of delays ensued, until the Board instructed a committee to scale down the plan of operations to enable a smaller library to open sooner (a “sustainable” model, if you will). Three weeks later, the committee suggested leasing space in the Butler Exchange building, which was approved. In May 1877 a young Massachusetts librarian named William E. Foster was hired, and in June he started classifying and arranging the more than 10,000 books which had been accumulated. Eight months later, according to Foster, “On the evening of February 4, 1878, the Library’s quarters were thrown open to the public, for inspection and for the issue of library cards, and on the following morning, February 5th, the circulation of the books began.”

By the end of that year books had circulated 90,000 times to over 10,000 registered patrons. After two years the collection had almost doubled and new quarters had to be found. From May to July of 1880 the Library was moved to the street-level rooms below the Mowry & Goff school on Snow street. In a history of Rhode Island published in 1886, the new public library is praised handsomely. After listing some of the significant collections that had so far been added (including our Harris Civil War and Slavery collection and half a dozen others), the commentator said that it was the service to patrons which made the library such an asset:

“What makes this library eminently useful, is the means taken by the custodian to acquaint each inquiring reader with the contents of this treasure-house . . . the average book-taker, wishing to inform himself on a given subject, might hunt in vain among the shelves for the information he seeks . . . but as modern libraries are managed, it is the business of the librarian to assist the reader and enable him to find, at once, the books that will be helpful to him . . . with such facilities for making its contents available, the free library takes rank with the pulpit, the free schools, and the newspapers as an educational force in the community, and becomes a means of untold good to the rich and poor alike in the city of Providence.”

In 1891 an innovation was introduced. One of the staff members had exhibited a particular talent for answering patron’s questions. It was resolved to create a new position for this person, and the Information Desk was born. Few libraries in America provided such a service, which quickly became a central asset of the library. In 1892, Foster reported that “the Information Desk . . . is gradually becoming the centre of the library life; a favorite resort for the reader who is perplexed in his search for some elusive material, and who is sure of finding here interested and intelligent assistance.”

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