First School Library?

Q. When was the first school library established?

A. The best answer may be from Encyclopedia on Library and Information Science (1st ed.) article on “School Libraries:” “The birth of America’s school libraries cannot be assigned a definite date. Rather, these first school libraries were born unheralded in the earliest colonial times when the teacher in the one-room placed the Bible, a chapbook, and the Bay Psalm Book on the corner of his desk.” The same article also reports that in 1740 Benjamin Franklin recommended school libraries as a key element in the ideal academy, and the Penn Charter School in Philadelphia designating a specially designed room as the library in 1744.

In the 19th century, the rise of school libraries paralleled and was intertwined with the rise of public libraries. In 1835, New York State enacted legislation allowing school districts to use tax funds to purchase library books, and in 1839 the local districts were permitted to establish district libraries, with a distinction made between district libraries and building libraries. Similar laws were passed in Massachusetts, Michigan, Connecticut, and Rhode Island over the next few years, and by 1876, 19 states (or about half the number of states in the union) had passed laws allowing school libraries to be developed.

In 1876, school libraries were enumerated along with public libraries in Public Libraries in the United States: Their History, Condition, and Management (U. S. Office of Education, Special Report), with 826 reported. However, during this time in many towns across country, the growing number of public libraries also served as the school library resource for the community. By 1913, the. U. S. Office of Education reported about 10,000 public school libraries, but few contained more than 3,000 volumes. It really is in the early years of the 20th century that school libraries become more common, with both the American Library Association and the National Education Association establishing sections for school libraries, and the two organizations collaborating on standards.

In 1900, the first professionally trained school librarian, Mary Kingsbury, was appointed to manage the Erasmus High School library in Brooklyn. The second was Mary E. Hall, appointed in 1903 by the Girls’ High School in Brooklyn. Hall went on to collaborate on the Standard Library Organization and Equipment for Secondary Schools of Different Sizes (ALA, 1920) with C. C. Certain, producing the first standards for school libraries, and she later was the the first chairperson of the School Libraries Section, the precursor to today's American Association of School Librarians (AASL).

Internationally, the picture is clouded by libraries as part of religious institutions, such as in England, where, by the 8th century, notably at Canterbury, York, Winchester, and Hexham, there were schools closely associated with schools run by religious orders. For funded support, the earliest date might be 1578, when Shrewsbury, England passed an ordinance stating that school should include “a library and a gallerie … furnished with all manner of books, mappes, spheres, instruments of astronomye and all other things appertyninge to learning which may either be given to the schools or procured with school money.” (Cited in the Encyclopedia, with a reference to Dorothy McGinnis, “Instructional Materials Centers—Something New?” California School Librarian, 34(1), 4-6 (November 1962))


Clyde, L. A. "The Schole Lybrarie: Images From Our Past" [School libraries in England and the U. S.]. School Libraries Worldwide v. 5 no. 1 (January 1999) p. 1-16.

Encyclopedia on Library and Information Science (1st ed) Dekker, 1979. v. 26, p. 360-362.

Greenman, Edward D. “The Development of Secondary School Libraries” (Library Journal 38 (April 1913)

Harris, Michael H. History of Libraries in the Western World. 4th ed. (Scarecrow, 1995)

Jeffus, B. '"What's Past Is Prologue': A Timely Look at School Libraries." CSLA Journal v. 26 no. 1 (Fall 2002) p. 11-14 (Good timeline)

Wiegand, Wayne A. "The Rich Potential of American Public School Library History: Research Needs and Opportunities for Historians of Education and Librarianship." Libraries & the Cultural Record, 2007, Vol. 42 Issue 1, p. 57-74.

Woolls, Blanche. The School Library Media Manager, 4th ed (Libraries Unlimited, 2008), p. 12-20.

Woolls, Blanche, and David V. Loertscher, eds. The Whole School Library Handbook. (ALA, 2005), p. 2-8.