(For the history of each library, click on the library name on the locations page.)
In the years before the Civil War, a desire for public education and literacy prompted the construction of schools open to the children of all municipal residents and sparked the establishment of a variety of types of libraries in towns and cities throughout the United States. Early libraries tended to be subscription libraries, like the Providence Athenaeum, open only to those who had paid an often substantial yearly fee, or collections of books available for the use of the dues-paying, often more working-class, members of such organizations as the Providence Franklin Society or the Providence Association of Mechanics and Manufacturers.
By the 1860s, a growing number of towns and cities also opened public libraries, making books accessible to all residents free of charge. As industrial Providence expanded in population and wealth during this period, city leaders kept a watchful eye on developments in other cities and grew anxious that Providence was lacking in an important cultural measure: while the city had plenty of private, organizational and college libraries, it could boast no public library. By the 1870s, a group of affluent donors formed the Providence Public Library Corporation and, in 1878, Providence Public Library opened its doors in a leased room in the Butler Exchange, near the imposing, newly built City Hall. As the city continued to expand, it did not take long for the library to outgrow its first home and then its second (in a school on Snow Street between Washington and Westminster Streets, several blocks west of its first location).
Eventually, the library built a permanent home on Washington Street. The imposing Beaux-Arts building opened in 1900 and would eventually become the center of a widespread and massive urban library system.
It would be misleading, however, to suggest that all public library development in Providence was initiated by Providence Public Library. The period from the late 19th century into the early 20th century marked the emergence of a number of small community libraries founded by neighborhood organizations, such as the Olneyville Free Library Association, Mount Pleasant’s Sprague House Association or the Elmwood Public Library Association. Wanskuck Factory on Branch Avenue provided its workers with a small library in its Community Hall. Wealthy individuals also contributed to the growth of the city’s libraries. For example, Sarah Waterman donated land in Olneyville in 1890 for a building that would include library space, and the Knight family built the Knight Memorial Library in 1924.
From its inception, however PPL’s purpose was to "establish and maintain in the City of Providence a public library and such branches thereof as may be advisable and to establish buildings for the same. . ."1 As development pushed the city outward into neighborhoods within walking distance of the multiplying factories and near the horse car and then trolley lines connecting the new residential areas with the city’s center, PPL itself expanded into the rapidly developing neighborhoods by taking over or partnering with the existing neighborhood library organizations and by establishing new branches, sub-branches, deposit stations and bookmobiles. By 1920, all of the independent neighborhood libraries in the city had been folded into the PPL system, with the exception of Knight Memorial Library, which remained a privately operated public library until 1962 and would not merge completely with PPL until the 1990s.
Providence Public Library, however, was unable to sustain its comprehensive library system indefinitely. Private philanthropy and PPL’s large endowment –at one time the second-largest in the U.S. after New York Public Library’s—shrank dramatically during the Great Depression, but the size of the endowment nevertheless prevented the library from making a case for adequate public support of the city’s public libraries. Over time, the library system was cannibalized and stripped. The sub-branches and deposit stations were closed down, and the bookmobile was sold. PPL closed some of the smaller branches at various times, and they were only reopened after neighborhood groups, library patrons and civic leaders exerted considerable public pressure on PPL to do so.
By the early twenty-first century PPL’s trustees believed their financial situation to be increasingly dire. After failing yet again to persuade the City of Providence to increase its funding, PPL announced at the end of 2008 that it would be forced to close several branches during the following fiscal year. Patrons formed Providence Community Library and persuaded the Mayor to transfer the City’s funding to the new non-profit organization. On July 1, 2009, all nine PPL branches became part of the new PCL neighborhood library system. Although PPL initially retained ownership of the branch buildings, they were eventually transferred to the City of Providence in 2012, and PCL now leases them from the City.
- 1. Providence Public Library Charter as revised in 1994 and approved by the Trustees on June 16, 1994.