Until a hundred years ago, there were libraries that sold common stock and operated on a for-profit basis. The first public library in rural America opened in Peterboro, New Hampshire, in 1833 --- and the first free urban library opened in 1854, in Boston. Andrew Camegie gave money to build 1,679 libraries in 1,412 communities (and another 830 over- seas). The Library of Congress has this quote chiseled high on the Madison Building:
What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of Liberty & Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual and surest support.
The premier librarian of the late 19th Century was Melvil Dewey. He got his monicker because he was sick and tired of having his initials confused with Moby Dick. He thus changed his name from Melville Herman to Melvil Dewey and invented the American Library Association. His Dewey Decimal Classification system had little or nothing to do with classification, decimals, deweys, (or dewdrops, for that matter), but rather came about because of his interest in Victorian Ladies and their bustles. Pictures of the time show a typical Nineteenth Century masher making eyes at a bevy of young Library Ladies standing and sitting about him, unaware that they were soon to be decimaled (or decimated) by this candyman of the card file. He once said
To my thinking, a great librarian must have a clear head, a strong hand, and above all, a great heart
and in this, hinted at his excessive interest in bosoms, breasts, buckles and bows. With the usual Victorian gender-confusion, he went on to say,
I am inclined to think that most of the men who will achieve this greatness will be women.
His friend and fellow philanderer R. R. ("Rabbit") Bowker competed frantically with Dewey in the furbelow sweepstakes, founding Publisher's Weekly around the same time. Bowker and Dewey thus became the renegades of the reference room, the Lotharios of the bookmobile, illuminating multitudes of innocents under the illuminated manuscripts.
They had their jobs cut out for them: all their employees came to work in bustles, bodices, blouses, bandanas, bandoleros and bandeaus along with corsets, hoops, stays, bibs, jupes, and seize-proof dickeys. The two of them complained bitterly to each other about having to wade through so much crinoline terrain to achieve their dubious goals. It wasn't, however, spelling that finally made Dewey the furpery of the file room. He once wrote that he had
devyzed the Decimal Clasification during a long sermon by President Stearns [of Amherst College] while I lookt stedfastly at him without hearing a word.
Despite his lewd eyes and lecherous ways, Dewey lived to a ripe old age, and on his deathbed, is said to have gasped "Remember...Librarians...Always...Do It In Stacks." This mot was engraved on his tombstone, and it is the least favorite bumper-sticker of the ALA to this very day.
The Library in America is chocka-block full of pictures and facts, but probably none of the facts as given above. The book has over four hundred wonderful photographs, many of them drawn from WPA archives.