The legacy of the free library

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Creative Commons Photo by Meridith112

One of my earliest memories is going to the local library and watching my mom thumb through the Dewey Decimal System card catalogue and taking home books for the family.

It was a mansion of a building — it really resembled a castle — right in the middle of downtown Beaver Dam. Opened in 1891, its initial holdings were made up of 4,500 volumes. Above the entrance in stone was the inscription Williams Free Library.

In my hometown, John J. Williams donated $25,000 and the city bought the land to house the library, which served the community for nearly a century. I remember my mom telling me the story of a rich businessman who donated the money to build the library on the promise that it would be free for everyone, hence the inscription.

Free was good. We lived in a trailer when I was born, and shortly after that moved into the upstairs of my grandpa’s family farm house. Money was scarce, but books were not.

The library was a huge resource for us. I remember listening endlessly to books on records and then later books on tape before I could read. My older brother checked out Choose Your Own Adventures that he read to me in our shared bedroom, allowing me to pick the next chapter.

via Wisconsin Library Heritage Center

By the time I was 3, our community of 15,000 had outgrown the Williams Free Library, and moved down the street to a building renamed Beaver Dam Community Library. (The old building lived on as a historical society museum.)

I spent a huge portion of my middle school and high school years hanging out at this library. I exchanged teenage rebellion for absolute nerdom. And I loved it. I devoured USA Today and TIME and Newsweek and Sports Illustrated and Runner’s World and The New Republic. In books, my tastes tended toward biographies and sports history, along with comedy books like Jerry Seinfeld’s Sein Language. I also checked out an ACT test prep book to study for my college entrance exams.

It was at the library where I also made my first first explorations of The World Wide Web, as it was known at the time. I set up my first email,, where I sent message to friends and subscribed to history discussion board lists.

I remember reading back issues of Rolling Stone on the computer — though I can’t recall if it was microfilm or the Internet. But I do know this was when I got my first inkling that I wanted to be a writer.

Today I brought my kids to the library, as I do most weekends. We checked out and were on our way out the door when my son, Xavier, wouldn’t let us leave. He insisted on going back and getting yet another handful of kids books. How can you turn down a demand like that?

The feeling of freedom and wonder when you enter the library has never gone away for me. It’s a sense of having endless amount of potential knowledge at your fingertips. You’ll never in a thousand lifetimes be able to digest even a portion of the information contained within those walls. But the point is that it’s there, easily accessible for the browsing and taking. You never know what nugget of knowledge you’ll stumble upon.

According to the Wisconsin Library Heritage Center, the Williams Free Library was one of the first libraries in the nation to implement an open stacks layout. Before that, patrons had to request any book they wanted to check out.

This was a practice popularized by Carnegie libraries. Architectural historian Walter Langsam wrote that the change to open stacks was important for libraries because it “encouraged people to browse” and “people could choose for themselves what books they wanted to read.”

Apparently building libraries was a thing for philanthropists to do back then. Andrew Carnegie started building libraries in 1883, and his grants built more than 2,500 libraries by 1929.

Fast forward to today. The legacy of the free library is still important. The idea that knowledge should be democratic and open and accessible and easy to get regardless of income or demographic is something I think most people in this country get behind.

If we abolish Net Neutrality, it seems to me we’d move back to the age when knowledge was less accessible, back to the pre-free library and closed-stack days. That would be a loss for us all.

Written by

Educator. Podcast addict. Wrote a book about creativity:

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