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Libraries and Museums, Libraries

Latin Americana, Schomburg Center, Newberry Library, private papers, Huntington Library

Private book collections go back to the early European settlement of the New World, beginning with the founding of the Harvard University library in 1638. Colleges and universities acquire books because they are a necessary component of higher education. University libraries have many of the most significant and extensive book collections. In addition to Harvardís library, the libraries at Yale University, Columbia University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in Urbana, and the University of California in Berkeley and Los Angeles are among the most prominent, both in scope and in number of holdings. Many of these libraries also contain important collections of journals, newspapers, pamphlets, and government documents, as well as private papers, letters, pictures, and photographs. These libraries are essential for preserving Americaís history and for maintaining the records of individuals, families, institutions, and other groups.

Books in early America were scarce and expensive. Although some Americans owned books, Benjamin Franklin made a much wider range of books and other printed materials available to many more people when he created the first generally recognized public library in 1731. Although Franklinís Library Company of Philadelphia loaned books only to paying subscribers, the library became the first one in the nation to make books available to people who did not own them. During the colonial period Franklinís idea was adopted by cities such as Boston, Massachusetts; Providence, Rhode Island; and Charleston, South Carolina.

These libraries set the precedent for the free public libraries that began to spread through the United States in the 1830s. Public libraries were seen as a way to encourage literacy among the citizens of the young republic as well as a means to provide education in conjunction with the public schools that were being set up at the same time. In 1848 Boston founded the first major public library in the nation. By the late 19th century, libraries were considered so essential to the nation's well-being that industrialist Andrew Carnegie donated part of his enormous fortune to the construction of library buildings. Because Carnegie believed that libraries were a public obligation, he expected the books to be contributed through public expenditure. Since the 19th century, locally funded public libraries have become part of the American landscape, often occupying some of the most imposing public buildings in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Philadelphia. The belief that the knowledge and enjoyment that books provide should be accessible to all Americans also resulted in bookmobiles that serve in inner cities and in rural counties.

In addition to the numerous public libraries and university collections, the United States boasts two major libraries with worldwide stature: the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and the New York Public Library. In 1800 Congress passed legislation founding the Library of Congress, which was initially established to serve the needs of the members of Congress. Since then, this extraordinary collection has become one of the world's great libraries and a depository for every work copyrighted in the United States. Housed in three monumental buildings named after Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, the library is open to the public and maintains major collections of papers, photographs, films, maps, and music in addition to more than 17 million books.

The New York Public Library was founded in 1895. The spectacular and enormous building that today houses the library in the heart of the city opened in 1911 with more than a million volumes. The library is guarded by a famous set of lion statues, features a world-famous reading room, and contains more than 40 million catalogued items. Although partly funded through public dollars, the library also actively seeks funds from private sources for its operations.

Institutions such as these libraries are fundamental to the work of scholars, who rely on the great breadth of library collections. Scholars also rely on many specialized library collections throughout the country. These collections vary greatly in the nature of their holdings and their affiliations. The Schmulowitz Collection of Wit and Humor at the San Francisco Public Library contains more than 20,000 volumes in 35 languages. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, part of the New York Public Library, specializes in the history of Africans around the world. The Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, located at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Massachusetts, houses the papers of prominent American women such as Susan B. Anthony and Amelia Earhart. The Bancroft Collection of Western Americana and Latin Americana is connected with the University of California at Berkeley. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, was established by American railroad executive Henry Huntington and contains a collection of rare and ancient books and manuscripts. The Newberry Library in Chicago, one of the most prestigious research libraries in the nation, contains numerous collections of rare books, maps, and manuscripts.

Scholars of American history and culture also use the vast repository of the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., and its local branches. As the repository and publisher of federal documents, the National Archives contain an extraordinary array of printed material, ranging from presidential papers and historical maps to original government documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. It houses hundreds of millions of books, journals, photos, and other government papers that document the life of the American people and its government. The library system is deeply entrenched in the cultural life of the American people, who have from their earliest days insisted on the importance of literacy and education, not just for the elite but for all Americans.

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