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The ancient world’s large institutional libraries, like the one at Alexandria in Egypt, seem to have operated much like our major research libraries: A scholar would request a particular scroll and a staff member would go to get it. Public libraries originated during the Roman Empire. In these smaller, less formal settings—many of them housed with the baths—readers had direct access to the shelves. Perhaps those baths were the site of the first book groups.
It was not until the mid-18th century that circulating libraries began to proliferate, for they depended on hundreds of years of technological and social advances, from the invention of the printing press and cast-iron type to improvements in ink and the rise of a middle class. Booksellers were the first to set up lending libraries; they charged a small fee to rent books to patrons who could not afford to buy them. The first free library, for use without subscription, opened in Manchester, England, in 1852, and soon many municipalities began charging a small tax for the establishment of public lending libraries. The idea found broad support, and library systems continued to grow in the late 19th century with huge donations from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
Carnegie built hundreds of libraries in the United Kingdom, and also funded more than 1,800 public libraries in the United States and Canada. Whenever I’m in a small town for more than a day or two, I search out a Carnegie library. Passing the café and the book sale table and the local notices, I wander among the shelves. I recognize the patrons—the man, smelling of unwashed clothes and hair, who talks to himself as he shuffles through the papers in his briefcase; the pimpled teenager who slinks through the doors after school and retreats to the farthest corner of the room; the young mother who pushes her sleeping toddler in a stroller with one hand, while with the other she cracks the cover of the latest mystery. “There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the free public library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration,” Carnegie said. The only sounds here are the shush-shush of air circulating through the heating system and the rustle of a turned page. Even in a strange place, I am among friends.
The only thing I’ve ever stolen is a book, and I stole it from a library—the library of my elementary school. Sally Watson’s Lark, set in Restoration England, concerns a 13-year-old girl who, in the absence of her exiled parents, lives with some Roundhead relatives. But the prospect of marriage to her stolid cousin so disgusts her that she bolts for her sister’s home in Scotland. On the way, she meets a young Cavalier spy called James Trelawney, whose irritation with her slowly turns to interest and affection as she demonstrates her pluck and intelligence in the many adventures they share.
I suppose I could speculate about why I stole this book rather than any other. But my reasons were simple. I loved it for its subtle characterizations, its humor, its understated romance. I loved it even for its cover—a rather ordinary line drawing of a pert girl’s face peering out from brownish leaves. I must have borrowed it half a dozen times, and finally, instead of returning it, I “misplaced” it—assuaging my guilt with the thought that according to the circulation card in its back pocket, I was the only one who’d borrowed it in years.
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