As a girl, Katherine Reier spent many days at public libraries across the region.
Still, when she passed a Free Library sign this spring, a new curiosity flooded her mind: Why is Philly’s library system called the “Free Library”?
In search of the answer, she contacted Curious Philly, our Q&A forum that invites readers to send queries about topics of interest and asked: Why, if every town has a free public library, is the Philadelphia system called “Free Library”?
“It’s like where did that come from?” said Reier, 66, of Abington. “Nobody else that I know of, that I’ve ever seen, no other town calls their library the free library. They call it the library, or the public library, or the memorial library. … They don’t call it the free library, but all these libraries are free whether they call it that or not … so why do we call our library the free library?”
The Free Library of Philadelphia was established in 1894. Before then, Philadelphia was solely home to private, subscription libraries, which thrived throughout the 19th century, but provided access only to residents who could afford them.
In 1887, William Pepper wanted to change that. So Pepper, a physician, educator, and then-provost of the University of Pennsylvania, set out to create a free library that was open to all, according to Janine Pollock, the Free Library’s chief of special collections.
After a bequest from an uncle, George Pepper, William Pepper gathered a group to organize a free library. That group later became the original board of directors, tasked with establishing a governing structure for the library. In 1891, it chartered an institution, the Free Library of Philadelphia, “for the use of the People of Philadelphia, a general library which shall be free to all,” Pollock said.
Initially, litigation with three private libraries prevented the group from founding a free public library system. But William Pepper persuaded the city to build a publicly funded library system, which became the Philadelphia Public Library. The first branch opened at the Wagner Free Institute of Science in 1892.
In 1894, the courts ruled in favor of William Pepper’s Free Library, and later that year it merged with the city’s public library system and became the Free Library of Philadelphia, founded under the motto “Liber Libere Omnibus,” the Latin phrase meaning “Free Books for All.”
Since its founding 125 years ago, technological developments and societal changes have completely reshaped how people consume information and media. Amid the city’s struggles with poverty and low literacy rates, Pollock said the library’s purpose and value is clearer now more than ever.
“ 'Free Books for All’ is still a central part of our identity, but free access to computers and internet, to music and movies, to programs for all ages, and to a vast array of other tools and learning experiences is very much in the spirit of what [Pepper] envisioned for this city,” Pollock said.