Short History of the PPL (part 4, final)

By now it was clear that in order to expand to meet growing needs, the Library would require its own permanent home. In 1893 the Library’s collection numbered over 60,000 volumes, many of which were in off-site warehouses. The Finance Committee bought two estates fronting Washington Street for about $30,000. Architects were invited to submit plans, but none were accepted. A consulting architect was hired to evaluate and revise the plans, which were put on display at the Providence Art Club for inspection, culminating in the choice of the firm Stone, Carpenter and Willson. The Trustees decided that more land was required for an adequate building, and purchased three adjoining estates for $58,000. The initial cost estimates of the building were so high that it was decided to only build a permanent structure for the stacks, and to front it with a temporary structure for public and administrative spaces. Ground was broken in 1896, but we were far short of the needed money.

In February 1897, an angel appeared in the form of John Nicholas Brown, who initially gave $200,000, and before the project was finished would give another $70,000.The new building opened on the Ides of March, 1900. By May 1st, John Nicholas Brown was dead of typhoid fever—some say the infection resulted from a cold he caught at our opening ceremony, which would be a black irony indeed. The fact is, a free cultural institution requires a certain amount of sacrifice, because as we all know, nothing is ever truly free. The piper must be paid.

I’ll close with a bit of Arnold Greene’s speech on that March day in 1900 when we opened the doors of our new building:“A public library is an institute of free general education, to serve voluntary learners . . . it is an adjunct to the school of every kind and grade. It suggests and helps and supplements when requested, and here its functions end. Its existence requires no further justification than that whenever and wherever education has been recognized as important, the library has found its appointed place.”

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