Britain’s North American colonial libraries sprang up at the nation’s new educational institutions. The first library was established when Boston clergyman John Harvard donated his collection in the 1690s to the institution now bearing his name.
The next major step in the formation of libraries came when Benjamin Franklin convinced the Junto, a Philadelphia literary discussion group, to form what became the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1831. Essentially, this was a membership library in which members first were assessed a fee of 40 shillings to join, then charged a membership fee of 10 shillings per year. Franklin set up the library in a private house, and members were allowed one hour on Wednesdays and two hours on Saturdays to check out books.
In 1776, America had only 26 public libraries: four in Connecticut, five in Massachusetts, eight in Pennsylvania, three in Rhode Island, two in New York and one each in Maine, New Jersey, South Carolina and Virginia.
The new colony of Georgia actually got a jump on the rest of the British North American colonies, for when George Whitefield was granted 500 acres to start an orphanage outside of Savannah in 1740, he established a library in the upstairs room on the left side of the main house.
The first real library in the Deep South was the Charleston Library Society, which organized in 1771 but didn’t actually open a library until 1790. In Georgia, the first college to open a library was the Demosthenian Society at Franklin College, now the University of Georgia, in the early 1800s.
On Nov. 20, 1801, the Savannah Library Society was incorporated, and in 1809, it opened a subscription library, where members paid a fee in order to use the facilities and borrow books. The Georgia Historical Society Library opened its doors in 1839, and the Savannah Library Society merged its collection with theirs in 1847.
The official Franklin College library opened in 1835. It was a 50-by-40-foot, two-story building, which had two rooms on each floor. It was manned by the college’s first librarian, professor James Jackson, and was open Monday through Thursday for one-half to one hour a day.
By 1850, Georgia had 38 libraries across the state, which altogether held 31,788 volumes — less than half the amount Harvard had in its own collection. In 1897, the Georgia Legislature created the Georgia Library Commission, becoming the first state in the South to establish publicly supported free libraries.
Roger Allen is a local lover of history. He provides a brief look at the area's historical past. Email Roger at email@example.com.