What’s the Oldest Library in America?

By Neal Comment

In one of yesterday’s items, I referred to Philadelphia’s Library Company as “the first lending library in the United States.” That prompted an email from Chris Offutt, who mentioned that he had once visited the Redwood Library in Newport, Rhode Island, because he had heard that that was the oldest library in the United States—which I dimly remembered from my own childhood, when my grandfather would take my brother and I to Redwood while he picked up his summer reading. So I had to figure that out before I could get any sleep last night…

The Redwood web site describes the library, founded in 1747, as “the oldest lending library in America, and the oldest library building in continuous use in the country.” On the other hand, Benjamin Franklin founded the Library Company in 1731, which makes it “America’s first successful lending library and oldest cultural institution.” I think I’ve figured out the conflict, though: Today, the Library Company currently holds “an extensive non-circulating collection,” while, as mentioned above, members can still check books out of Redwood. So the first lending library is no longer the oldest, but Philly’s still got a 16-year headstart on Newport on the cultural institution front.

UPDATE: Michael Lowenthal emailed to remind me about Cape Cod’s Sturgis Library, which has “the oldest building housing a public library in the United States” on its property. Although the library itself didn’t open until 1867, the building it was housed in was constructed in 1644.