Many of you may be proud, card carrying members of your local public library. You enjoy the perks of being able to read as many books, watch as many DVDs and use as much free WiFi as you want. While this is certainly nothing to squawk at, have you heard about membership libraries? The benefits of these institutions are even more appealing.
The public library system we know today was established by Andrew Carnegie in the 1880s. These early libraries were funded by subscriptions members paid, which is how collections were built. Eventually, free public libraries became the new norm, but 19 membership libraries are still in existence today. Members of these libraries utilize them for more than simply books, however. They also provide one of the classiest places to work for those who usually just work from home. Since these rare membership libraries are usually in the original buildings from the late 1800s, it’s like walking around in a living museum.
As someone who has worked in a public library, I can attest that they don’t always attract the type of patrons that appreciate the history of the library system or what a membership library is, which is why only a few of them still exist. There will always be literary lovers that are willing to pay to sit in cushy leather chairs, amongst high bookshelves filled with leather-bound books. In fact, those that use these membership libraries as their workspace are actually getting a good deal. For instance, the annual fee for access to membership libraries ranges anywhere from $15 to $250. Monthly fees for less cultured workspaces can be hundreds of dollars.
When Benjamin Franklin founded the first membership library, the Library Company of Philadelphia, in 1731, his vision was to provide great literature to members, but also a forum where people could engage in discussion. This idea was purebred American, as the first membership library didn’t debut in England until almost 1800. In that time, universities and schools owned the majority of literary collections. If people wanted to rent books, they had to pay per book. Franklin’s membership library was a place where the common man and brilliant minds alike could engage in debates that wouldn’t normally happen.
A membership library in Cincinnati, the Mercantile Library, had more than 3,000 members during the Civil War period. By the late 20th century, membership was down to only 500 people. Realizing that something wasn’t working, library leaders made some vital changes. Instead of leaving it up to the books to attract members, lectures from the likes of Julia Child and John Updike were offered, concerts were put on and social gatherings organized. With events like these, membership libraries are putting to rest the outdated image of libraries being just nerd hangouts. In fact, they kind of seem like the place to be to get away from it all and, you know, learn something.