American Library Association Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Leading American librarians established the American Library Association to promote librarianship and to set ethical standards for the profession, to promote libraries as intellectual institutions, and to encourage reading as a means to social improvement.

Summary of Event

American libraries date back to the beginnings of colonial settlement. Benjamin Franklin Franklin, Benjamin [p]Franklin, Benjamin;and libraries[Libraries] founded the first public lending library in colonial America, and subscription libraries soon appeared throughout the colonies. John Harvard’s personal collection became the foundation of Harvard College’s Harvard College;library growing library, which grew to be the largest academic library in the United States. Thomas Jefferson, who believed that legislators should have at their disposal as much factual material as possible to shape their governing decisions, donated his own book collection to form the foundation of the Library of Congress Library of Congress , now the nation’s largest publicly funded research library. In 1833 the town of Petersborough, New Hampshire, created the first tax-supported public library. American Library Association Libraries;American Library Association Dewey, Melvil Poole, William Frederick [kw]American Library Association Is Founded (Oct. 4-6, 1876) [kw]Library Association Is Founded, American (Oct. 4-6, 1876) [kw]Association Is Founded, American Library (Oct. 4-6, 1876) [kw]Founded, American Library Association Is (Oct. 4-6, 1876) American Library Association Libraries;American Library Association Dewey, Melvil Poole, William Frederick [g]United States;Oct. 4-6, 1876: American Library Association Is Founded[4925] [c]Organizations and institutions;Oct. 4-6, 1876: American Library Association Is Founded[4925] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Oct. 4-6, 1876: American Library Association Is Founded[4925] Winsor, Justin Poole, William Frederick

The skills of library work were taught to some degree, and many of the foremost academic and public librarians corresponded regularly with one another and exchanged ideas. On the whole, however, the country’s new libraries, as institutions, existed in isolation. No organization tied them together, and there were no uniform or otherwise guiding practices or standards. Each librarian was his or her own guide, and a person visiting a new library would often have to spend significant amounts of time to become acquainted with the peculiarities of a given collection. There were some hints of change in September of 1853, which saw the first national conference of librarians, a gathering that included a number of well-known names in early librarianship. The conference, however, produced no lasting organizational structure, and the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) was to sideline follow-up meetings for more than one decade.

Melvil Dewey.

(Library of Congress)

Into this situation of flux came a young firebrand by the name of Melvil Dewey, a graduate of Amherst who had become the librarian at his alma mater, where he created the first library school to teach librarianship as a profession. In addition to advocating the creation of an entire system of library schools, he had founded the first magazine related to librarianship and libraries, Library Journal, and almost single-handedly created the Dewey decimal classification system Dewey decimal classification system , which organized books and other printed materials systematically by subject rather than by an author’s name, as had been common practice.

Although he had no formal authority to do so, Dewey was to lay the groundwork for creating a professional association of librarians along the lines of the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association. With Justin Winsor Winsor, Justin of the Boston Public Library, William Frederick Poole of the Chicago Public Library, and others, Dewey arranged for a discussion about creating a “library association.” On October 4, 1876, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, more than one hundred people attended the first brainstorming meeting, which included thirteen women, reflecting the growing importance of women in the profession. On October 6, attendees produced a resolution that formally created the American Library Association (ALA). Winsor, who was as well known for his work as a historian as he was for his librarianship, was unanimously elected ALA president, and Dewey was made its first secretary. Dewey promptly announced that a representative of the bureau of education was bringing copies of the government’s Special Report on Libraries.

The conference had been the stage for strong personality clashes between Poole, a midwesterner, and Dewey, a New Englander who sought social reform. Many of their arguments concerned the value of reading fiction as part of social reform. Poole had believed that good contemporary fiction could lead people toward quality nonfiction and ultimately to the great classics of ancient Greece and Rome. Dewey had regarded fiction as inherently suspect, as something that could corrupt readers’ minds and morals. Dewey also disapproved of several of Poole’s personal habits, in particular his fondness for tobacco. During the course of the conference, Poole left the meeting room to smoke a cigar. Subsequently, when he protested that the organization was promulgating resolutions upon which he had not voted, Dewey criticized him for having left the meeting to smoke and suggested that these absences explained his ignorance of the proposals in question.

The conference helped transform the concept of the library profession. No longer would librarians be merely custodians of a static collection of books. Rather, the librarian was to become an agent of social change by selecting and promoting books that had the capacity to change the way in which readers thought and acted. However, this transformation did not come about through the discussion of abstract principles of librarianship. The ALA had a practical orientation, and the question of quality fiction and its possible use in the transformation of society was probably the most theoretical discussion. Dewey and his fellow librarians were far more interested in concrete issues such as the establishment of uniform standards of practice across the library profession, as well as securing sources of supplies. As a result, Dewey established an organization known as the Library Bureau to provide ALA members and their libraries with quality library supplies at the lowest possible cost by plugging into economies of scale. Rather than each library going directly to the maker of each type of equipment, be it furniture or pencils or card stock, the Library Bureau would buy in bulk at wholesale prices and pass the savings on to the individual library. Dewey’s driving energy was one of the major factors in the success of the fledgling ALA in those early years.


The founding of the American Library Association marked a critical turning point in the perception of librarianship as a profession. The ALA was able not only to set standards of practice but also ethical standards, and it became one of the foremost defenders of intellectual freedom. By the middle of the twentieth century, the organization routinely served as a clearinghouse for information about complaints against the contents of books and how librarians could best respond to those complaints. The ALA also became an important proponent of information technology, from the central production of accurate and uniform catalog cards by the Library of Congress during the late nineteenth century to the development of the computer and databases for both staff and patron use.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Donald G. Winsor, Dewey, and Putnam: The Boston Experience. Champaign: University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science, 2002. A look at the relationship between the New Englanders who were among the founders of the American Library Association.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Utley, George Burwell. Fifty Years of the American Library Association. Chicago: American Library Association, 1926. A slender volume with a great deal of early material. The author was involved with many of the events of the ALA’s early history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiegand, Wayne A. Irrepressible Reformer: A Biography of Melvil Dewey. Chicago: American Library Association, 1996. Examines Dewey’s activities in the ALA in the context of his general interest in social reform.

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U.S. Department of Education Is Created

New Library of Congress Building Opens

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Melvil Dewey; William Holmes McGuffey; Daniel and Alexander Macmillan; Henry Hobson Richardson. American Library Association Libraries;American Library Association Dewey, Melvil Poole, William Frederick

Categories: History