Enoch Pratt arrived in Baltimore from a Massachusetts farm with nothing but $150 in his pocket, but he was frugal and industrious and eventually thrived in a variety of businesses. In 1882 he offered to give the city of Baltimore a major circulating library for free public use, along with 32,000 books, plus four branch libraries in different quarters of the city, and an endowment of $1,058,333 for upkeep and future expansion. Once built, the Pratt almost immediately became one of the most heavily used libraries in the country, and it thrived over the century and a quarter since. Andrew Carnegie described it in The Gospel of Wealth as the best such institution in the country, and he cited Pratt as his exemplar for his own nationwide library program which he launched the year Pratt’s main library opened. In fact, two decades after the initial opening of the Pratt Library, Carnegie donated a half-million dollars to Baltimore to allow the building of 20 additional branches—part of his wider campaign that paid for the erection of more than 2,800 libraries (see the 1881 Carnegie Library entry in our companion list of major achievements in Arts and Culture).
These were just two of the many American philanthropists who lifted American literacy and learning by donating important collections of books to the public. The grandfather of them all was Benjamin Franklin, who in league with a group of friends incorporated the Library Company of Philadelphia, the first such entity in British North America, in 1731 (see separate entry following). In 1814, Thomas Jefferson offered his large and impossible-to-replicate library to Congress for official use after the British burned Washington. Judah Touro gave the American West its first public collection of books when he offered to put up the Touro Free Library in the city of New Orleans in 1824, and at his death he helped endow the famous Redwood Library in Newport, Rhode Island. With a $50,000 gift and 30,000 books “of permanent value,” financier Joshua Bates launched the Boston Public library, whose main reading room remains named for him. John Jacob Astor gave $400,000 to New York in 1848 to establish a library, later combined with the $2 million collection of James Lenox, and money bequeathed by Samuel Tilden, to form the New York Public Library—which continues to be a private, non-governmental charity funded by a mix of philanthropic and city contributions.. With a $50,000 gift and 30,000 books “of permanent value,” financier Joshua Bates launched the Boston Public library, whose main reading room remains named for him.
These gifts transformed libraries, over the course of just a couple generations, from luxuries possessed by the wealthy to institutions of self-improvement available to all. Today there are more than 16,000 public libraries in the U.S., and they are visited a billion and a half times every year.
- Enoch Pratt Library history, prattlibrary.org/about/index.aspx?id=1604
- Original Pratt documents, archive.org/stream/enochprattfreeli00enoc#page/14/mode/2up