Social libraries were institutions founded in the United States from the late 18th to the early 19th century to fill a need for intellectual and educational resources given the lack of public libraries. Social libraries were mostly either proprietary libraries, where members bought stock in the library itself, or association libraries, where members paid for the use of a library via an annual subscription fee and often an initial membership fee as well. These were often supplemented by philanthropic donations motivated by either a genuine interest in public education or by a paternalistic desire to keep the lower classes out of trouble and occupied with worthy uses of their free time. Many social libraries had a strong educational and recreational component, supplying courses and other educational programs, game rooms, and even gymnasiums. Social libraries died out in the late 19th century due to the rise of taxpayer supported public libraries and a general trend towards public supported education.

The first social library was the Library Company of Philadelphia, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731. It still exists today: www.librarycompany.org

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