When the Copley Square building, the crown jewel of the Boston Public Library system, was first unveiled in 1895, architect Charles Follen McKim described it as a “palace for the people.” The concept may sound trite today, but during the 19th century, the BPL presented a radical concept about what role public libraries might play in America, acting as bastions of knowledge for the common good. The library’s foundation in 1848 marked the first time that citizens could borrow books and materials for free, a revolutionary concept at the time. The BPL was also the first library to establish a branch system, opening over 20 locations between 1872 and 1900, serving diverse populations across the city’s many neighborhoods.
Although the BPL pioneered a new model for public libraries in America, its foundation included several false starts and setbacks. Boston Athenaeum trustee George Ticknor first proposed the idea for a public library in 1826, but received little popular interest. French philanthropist Alexandre Vattemare echoed Ticknor’s proposal in 1839, encouraging Boston’s private libraries to consolidate their resources into one public institution, but librarians and trustees were initially unsupportive. The effort to create a public library was in fact catalyzed by events hundreds of miles away, when real estate mogul John Jacob Astor donated $400,000 to establish a public library in New York, igniting the ambitions of Bostonians who have long considered the city its cultural and economic rival. Just a few years later, the Great and General Court of Massachusetts passed a statute that enabled the creation of its own public library.
BPL’s current network includes 24 locations that host over 10,000 programs, and attract nearly four million visitors through its doors, every year. The Central Library on Copley Square consists of both the Renaissance-style McKim building, and the modernist Johnson building, completed in 1972 and connected via interior passageways. These buildings house the majority of the BPL research and circulation collections, and serve as the headquarters for the library’s other branches. A major renovation of the Johnson building, completed in 2016, added a new children’s library, business innovation center, and radio broadcasting studio for WGBH.
With over 24 million items, the BPL collection is surpassed only by the Library of Congress and New York Public Library in its size, and has been described as one of the five most important libraries in the country by American historian David McCullough. Included in its archives are monumental texts such as William Shakespeare’s First Folio, anti-slavery manuscripts from abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, and the 3,800 volume personal library of John Adams.
Certain books were “banned in Boston” at least as far back as 1651, when one William Pynchon wrote a book criticizing Puritanism.