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Of all the gifts that Benjamin Franklin gave us, one of the most far-reaching has to be establishing the forerunner of our country’s public libraries.
They have been a mainstay in Kentucky almost from the beginning, when the first opened in 1795 at what is now Transylvania University in Lexington. Some historians believe it was also the first library outside of the 13 original colonies.
Within a year, that library had 400 books on its shelves, and by 1816, there were more than 4,000. Several dozen other communities across the commonwealth followed suit in the years leading up to the Civil War, using paid subscriptions – usually $5 a person – and local lotteries to cover the costs.
Toward the end of the 1800s, when one-fourth of Kentuckians age 10 and older still could not read, the state pushed to expand library services beyond our cities. A Louisville literary club formed the “Traveling Book Project” in 1887, for example, while in 1910, the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs gave the state 100 traveling libraries stocked with 5,000 books, a boon for rural areas where reading material beyond the Bible and textbooks was rare.
Two-and-a-half decades later, a program begun under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program continued that outreach mission in Eastern Kentucky through the Pack Horse Library Project, which had up to 30 mobile libraries during its relatively short eight-year history.
They served thousands of citizens who lived in some of the most remote areas of the state, and the women who made this possible often traveled up to 20 miles a day by horse or mule, earning only $28 a month.
All of this work laid the foundation for the modern era of the bookmobile, which next fall will celebrate 60 years of service. The Friends of Kentucky Libraries and the Kentucky Library Association kicked this off in 1954 at the Kentucky State Fair with a mile-long parade of more than 80 vehicles and 600,000 books.
Today, there are still more than 75 bookmobiles serving the state, and more than 200 library facilities whose book holdings now number in the millions.
Earlier this year, the House and Senate took time to recognize the incomparable work of our libraries, noting that 2.5 million Kentuckians have library cards. One national ranking says only 14 states have more libraries per person, and only three states’ libraries boast a higher percentage of Internet-connected computers.
No discussion of libraries would be complete without pointing out Kentucky’s many contributions to the world of literature. In the 1800s, for example, Lexington’s William Wells Brown became the country’s first African-American novelist, and the commonwealth plays a prominent role in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which was that century’s best-selling novel.
In 1903, meanwhile, five of the top 10 books on the Publisher’s Weekly bestsellers list were written by Kentuckians, according to “A New History of Kentucky.” A little more than a decade later, Springfield’s Elizabeth Madox Roberts’ first novel was hailed by the New York Times, and she was compared favorably to such well-known authors as Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis.
Some of Kentucky’s most famous authors began earning national recognition during the 1920s and 1930s, a list that includes Jesse Stuart, Harriette Arnow and Todd County’s Robert Penn Warren, who would be the first person to win Pulitzer Prizes in both fiction writing and poetry. Today, Sue Grafton, Bobbie Ann Mason and Barbara Kingsolver are regulars on bestseller lists.
In one sense, libraries are obviously different than those that existed more than two centuries ago, but their core mission – to foster a love of reading and to help define and preserve a community’s identity – remains the same. No matter what gains technology may bring, I am confident that will never change.
Rick Rand, D-Bedford, represents the 47th House District in the Kentucky General Assembly. His address is Room 366B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601; or leave a message at (800) 372-7181 or (800) 896-0305.