Question of the Week
What was the first free circulating library in America?
The Apprentices’ Library
April 11 through 17 is National Library Week. The first free circulating library in America was founded here in Philadelphia, initiated by Thomas Kimber, Daniel B. Smith, and Samuel Shober. The men met in the parlor of Kimber’s home on Pine Street in Philadelphia in 1820, when they decided to form the Apprentices’ Library. Later a larger group met at Carpenters’ Hall “to consider the difficulty which young people encounter to obtain suitable reading matter.” Horace Binney was elected the first president of the library, and Roberts Vaux was the first vice president. The group solicited donations of money and books, and assembled a table, desk, 24 chairs, and candlesticks.
In its early years, the Apprentices’ Library was located in Carpenters’ Hall, later occupied the Free Quaker Meeting House at 5th and Arch, and eventually relocated to North Broad Street. In December 1947, citing declining endowment income and rising operating costs, the members voted to dissolve the library and transfer all of the books and trust funds to the School District of Philadelphia.
HSP holds a collection of Apprentices’ Library Records (#1449A and B). The collection includes minute books, ledgers, correspondence, bookplate, and miscellaneous reports and papers. In addition, we have copies of the History of the Apprentices’ Library of Philadelphia, 1820-1920 by John Frederick Lewis (call number UPA/Ph Z 733 .A67 L49 1924.)
About the Author
Look for these history stories every Sunday in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The stories, called Memory Stream, are published in the Currents section of the newspaper.