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History of the State Library

In the beginning...

Figure 1: Photo of The Statutes at Large from the Magna Charta, 1735.

In the Votes and Proceedings of the House of Representatives of the Province of Pennsylvania for 5 December 1745 appears the following: "Ordered, That the Clerk send to England for the best Edition of the Statutes at large, for the Use of the House, and also for some large Maps (one of North America) to be hung up in the Assembly Room." By this action, Benjamin Franklin, Clerk of the Assembly, became instrumental in creation of the Pennsylvania State Library.

During the following decade, the collection grew to be a library with more than £1,000 invested in books. The library came under the influence of Charles Norris, who was appointed "Keeper of the Assembly Library" in 1754, and it shared quarters in the old State House (now Independence Hall in Philadelphia) with Franklin's other library interest, the Library Company of Philadelphia. An order of January 1767, requiring all volumes to be stamped "Assembly of Pennsylvania," has made it possible to identify 422 of the original collection still extant in their fine leather bindings, handsomely gold-tooled and blind stamped.

Although no catalog of the library has been found prior to 1829, it is possible to gain some insight into the reading preferences of that early period by examining the surviving Assembly volumes and the roughly 1,600 titles listed in that first catalog. An eclectic taste prevailed, for the collection runs the gamut of law, government, politics, history, science, philosophy, religion, geography, travels and fiction. Major emphasis was given to law and related materials, and these comprised about half of the collection. Arrangement was made by size (octavo, quarto, folio) and short title.

On the move...

After the American defeat at the Battle of the Brandywine in September 1777, the British advanced to occupy Philadelphia, and the Assembly Library was hastily removed to Easton. It was moved again in November to Lancaster. After the British evacuation of Philadelphia in June 1778, the library was returned to its original quarters in the State House, although the books were much the worse for their exposure to "long lying in damp places."

Figure 2: Illustration of a Pileated Woodpecker


Shortly after Harrisburg became the state capital in 1810, the library joined the legislature in temporary rooms in the old Dauphin County courthouse. By 1816, three separate collections had been formed: those of the Senate, House, and the Assembly. To correct this needless duplication, an act of February 1816 made legal provision for combining the libraries as a single State Library, the maintenance and supervision of which fell to an officially designated State Librarian and a library committee.

After 1854 the State Librarian was appointed by the Governor, rather than by a library committee. It is interesting to note the conditions for the State Librarian's appointment. His term of office was three years at an annual salary of $800. He was to be bonded for $2,000 and was expected to keep the library open 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. weekdays, and 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. during legislative sessions.

A threatened attack on Harrisburg by Confederate troops in June 1863 saw the State Library in precipitous flight to Philadelphia - all 20,000 volumes tossed with abandon into freight cars for the trip. Two months later, the library was returned to Harrisburg, having miraculously survived another crisis.

Better days arrived with the appointment of a series of three distinguished scholar-historians as State Librarian. The first of these, Dr. Charles Ehrenfeld, State Librarian 1878-1882, recognized the value of contemporary newspapers and the early Pennsylvania imprints. The work he began continues to the present day and now constitutes a most useful and valuable collection.

The noted historian and bibliophile, Dr. William Egle, introduced a card catalog in 1898 while pressing forward the expansion of the historical and genealogical collections. His term of service as State Librarian was 1887 to 1898.

Early 1900's...

Figure 3: Pages from The Nuremburg Chronicle.

The fortuitous appointment of Thomas Lynch Montgomery as State Librarian in 1903 ushered in a period of considerable growth for the State Library. The encouragement of Governor Samuel Pennypacker, himself an ardent bookman, led to innovations and new directions. During the 19 years of Montgomery's service, the library adopted the Dewey system of classification and the historical and genealogical collections grew still larger. After 1905, the State Librarian was also curator of the State Museum, and it was in this role that Montgomery established the State Archives and Division of Public Records. In this same year, a lantern slide collection was formed, a pioneer effort at that time.

In 1919, the Library was reorganized to bring consolidate all activities into one organization. Library Extension, the forerunner of the current Bureau of Library Development, was a new division brought into the Library, although the work had been going on for many years under an independent Free Library Commission. In 1899, under the urging of a number of gentlemen interested in free libraries, the Legislature had provided for the Commission, charged with the duty of giving advice to any community proposing to establish a library, or to libraries already existing, as to establishment, administration, cataloging and other matters connected with library work. The Commission was instrumental in the founding of more than 300 public libraries and traveling book collections for Pennsylvania. Library extension work continued to develop throughout the 1920s.

Figure 4: Photo of State Library of Pennsylvania construction, interior, Main Reading Room.

The Library became a part of the Department of Public Instruction (later the Department of Education) in 1923 and moved into the new Education Building in 1931. At the time of the move, the Museum stayed behind in the Capitol Annex and joined with the State Archives to become parts of the State Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission upon its creation in 1945. The Library's place within the Department's structure has changed as the Department has undergone reorganizations, leading finally to the naming of the State Librarian as Deputy Secretary and Commissioner in 1990.

The deepening effects of the Great Depression left their mark on the State Library by way of curtailed services and depleted staff, although WPA projects contributed several worthwhile additions to the Library's resources. Of these, the art illustrations file and census inventories are reminders of a quieter work level for librarians. Having into new and more commodious quarters in the new Education Building (now the Forum Building) in 1931, the Library experienced a gradual development of services and facilities through its General Library, Law and Extension divisions, despite years of accommodations to the fortunes of depression and war. The Extension division in particular received a new impetus the same year with the enactment of the County Library Aid law that made money and books available to libraries requiring assistance.

A time of library growth...

Federal and state library legislation breathed new life to statewide library programs in the 1950s and 1960s. The passage of the federal Library Services Act in 1956 made funds available for the first time to aid state libraries in the extension of public service to rural areas. The State Library commissioned a study by Lowell Martin that pointed the way to a state system of local libraries, district library centers, and regional library resource centers. The Library Code, first enacted by the General Assembly in 1961, during the tenure of the State Librarian Ralph Blasingame, and revised a number of time since then, provided state support to supplement and stimulate local support of public libraries. The vigor of the State Library's staff, led by Ernest Doerschuk, Jr., State Librarian from 1964 to 1978, and strengthened with federal dollars and the new state aid appropriations, brought Pennsylvania again to a period of national library leadership. Amendments to the federal legislation (now called the Library Services and Technology Act) and The Library Code have periodically broadened the State Library's responsibility. The restriction in the federal program to rural library service was lifted; new titles and appropriations provided support for programs of interlibrary cooperation, service to residents of state institutions, and service to the blind and physically handicapped; and appropriations reached a level sufficient to significantly strengthen the State Library's staff and collection. The Code was revised again in 2012 and is now known at the Public Library Code.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, the General Assembly has made annual appropriations to the State Library to support the service of the Regional Libraries for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, operated by the Free Library of Philadelphia and The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, to serve Pennsylvanians with visual or other disabilities who cannot read conventional printed materials. Using additional grants for demonstration projects, staff has worked with state correctional institutions and hospitals to establish strong resident library programs.

The 1961 Library Code placed a ceiling on the amount of state aid that could be disbursed; in less than two decades, local support had grown to the extent that state money no longer served as a stimulant. During the tenure of State Librarian Elliot Shelkrot, Act 200 of 1980 removed the ceiling and enabled a doubling of the state aid appropriation. A subsequent amendment authorized the support of cooperative programs among libraries of different types, and appropriations have begun to follow the legislation. Regulations promulgating standards for local public libraries, district library centers, and public library systems have served as measures of the effectiveness of public library service.

Advent of automation...

During the last three decades of the 20th century, the State Library made significant use of federal dollars to hasten the use of automation to support improved service to Pennsylvania's library users. Successively, large commitments made possible the adoption of online, shared cataloging through OCLC by the district library centers and a number of academic libraries; the use of microcomputers to improve management and administration of libraries; the widespread use of telefax equipment for reference, interlibrary loan, and improved communication; and, mo re recently, access to Internet services through libraries and the digitization of historic collections.

Administrative changes in the 1980s strengthened and broadened the programs further. The formerly separate General and Law Libraries were combined in 1981, leading, for the first time, to a unified policy of collection and service development for all of the Library's users and, eventually, to a computerized catalog of the entire collection. The catalog today is accessible through the Internet and is available on computer systems maintained by many departments in state government.

Sharing resources...

Periodic studies and comprehensive plans are part of the landscape of America's library programs, and the State Library of Pennsylvania has commissioned its share. Under the leadership of State Librarian Elliot Shelkrot, the Comprehensive Plan of 1983 provided the impetus to bring school libraries into the statewide resource-sharing program, and to start a statewide library card program for public libraries. Under the ACCESS PENNSYLVANIA banner, a blend of federal, state, and school district funds has supported the development and expansion of a statewide database of library catalogs, accessible on the Internet in all kinds of libraries across the Commonwealth. The ACCESS PENNSYLVANIA statewide database program quickly became a model for the nation, and brought new renown to the State Library of Pennsylvania. All public libraries receiving state aid now participate in the statewide library card system. Resource sharing has also been encouraged by the development of a liberal state interlibrary loan code. The program, under the banner of POWER Library, has expanded to include access to electronic resources and digital objects from Pennsylvania libraries.

In the 1990's the Office of the State Librarian became a deputate within the Department of Education and added the name Office of Commonwealth Libraries. It has two bureaus: the Bureau of Library Development and the Bureau of State Library.

Figure 5: Photo of the Rare Collections Reading Room.Expansion and addition of State Library programs have had to fit into the patterns of growth and reduction in state government. Beginning with the late 1970s and again in the early 2000's, state budgets were tightened and there was a general public sense that government should be reined in. The Bureau of State Library gradually lost some staff positions. The collections and staff became more focused on the actual work needs of state government and slowly reduced the hours of general public service, from 56 hours weekly in 1984 to 27.5 hours in 1992 and to 22.5 hours in 2009. Most services remain at the basic level. The Genealogy/Local History Collection operates on a self-service basis.

The Bureau of State Library collects in subjects of concern to state government and in Pennsylvania- related subjects. The Library's collections of Pennsylvania newspapers (hard copy and microfilm), Pennsylvania state publications, and federal documents received on deposit since the early days of the republic remains a valuable state resource.

Note: This history was adopted from a 1970 PLA Bulletin article by Robert Bray Wingate, Former Head, Rare Books and Special Collections State Library of Pennsylvania, with additions covering 1970 through 1995 by David R. Hoffman, Former Director of Library Services and Acting State Librarian, 1987 to 1988. Additions covering 1995 through 2014 have been added by Alice Lubrecht, Director of Library Services and Acting State Librarian, 2012.

For an historical list of the State Librarians who have served the Office of Commonwealth Libraries since 1745, see the Roster of Pennsylvania State Librarians.