Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1451:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1451.

Today, we invent the library. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

For you and me, libraries (like automobiles and telephones) seem to've been there always. When we celebrate the ancient libraries, it's the building down the street that's apt to form our mental picture. Just how much has changed becomes clearer when I look at the rich account of libraries in my 1911 and 1970 issues of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The library of our imagination isn't much older than automobiles or telephones. I mean that public place where the books that you and I jointly own are catalogued and lent out to us. The idea of sharing our goods that way is, of course, pure socialism, and it came into being with other forms of socialism, around 1850.

The free public lending library has actually emerged from time to time since the 17th century, and those origins are all distinctly American. The Massachusetts Bay Company provided a public collection of books as early as 1629. Salisbury, Connecticut, created a public reading room for children in 1803. Perhaps the oldest public library (in the sense we know it) is the one established in Peterborough, New Hampshire, in 1833. Boston formed a free public library in 1848.

But New Hampshire was the first state to establish general funding for public libraries. They passed the legislation in 1849. The British Encyclopaedia Britannica makes no bones about crediting America with this remarkable institution. And it was clearly part and parcel of the new movement toward American industrial reform. It's significant that 1850 was the same year the first nationwide labor union was formed, and that it was the printer's union.

So from now on, Americans would read as no other people ever had. In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill act. It provided land to every state for colleges whose prime purpose would be teaching students agriculture and the mechanical arts. But they were not to exclude general studies and the classics. They were, in short, to create an educated and functional citizenry. Today those Morrill schools have become major state universities throughout the land.

The 1911 Britannica was already boasting that America had ten thousand libraries of a thousand volumes or more. Today, I could stand in my own yard and throw a stone that would hit one of ten private homes with holdings that large. For we've reaped the fruit of having socialized our reading. When I did my undergraduate work at Oregon State, I'd pass a wrought iron fence on the way to class. The letters OAC were woven into the ironwork. The old name, Oregon Agricultural College, had been changed, but the impetus was the same. I was the beneficiary of a mid-19th-century decision that we rank and file Americans would read and be educated. And at the core of that decision was the remarkable idea that you and I would jointly own books.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

See the 1911 and 1970 Encyclopaedia Britannica entries under libraries.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H. Lienhard.