The growth of the public library idea in our state parallels that of the public school. Associations, formed at first for the exclusive benefit of the few, were gradually enlarged to include in their scope the good of all.
The first Maine legislature enacted both school and library laws modeled after those of Massachusetts. From 1798 to 1815 Massachusetts had provided by legislation for the incorporation of law, militia and proprietary and social libraries. Our inheritance, however was more than mere legal machinery, for, although statistics on that point were few and unreliable, the fact is well established that free libraries maintained by the people were as early as the middle of the eighteenth century considered a necessary part of our educational system.
A portion of "The Revolving Library", established in 1751 for three adjoining parishes in Kittery and York, is still in existence in the Community House at Kittery Point. The "Library Society" of Falmouth Neck, founded by twenty-six gentlemen in 1765, and succeeded in 1826 by the Portland Athenaeum, was the forerunner of the Portland Public Library, and the oldest library now in active existence, that of Bowdoin College established in 1794. During the years of 1798-1820 were founded the libraries of Waterville (now Colby) College, Gorham and North Yarmouth Accademies, and proprietary or social libraries in Bangor, Belfast, Bucksport, Camden, Castine, Gorham, Machias, Portland, Saco, Union, Warren, Westbrook, Winthrop, Wiscassett and probably other places.
The lyceum and debating clubs of this period played an important part in both school and community life and the libraries gradually accumulated by these clubs grew to be of such value that it became necessary to place them under the control and management of responsible bodies. The societies or associations formed for this purpose became the proprietary or social libraries authorized by the first library laws. The free public library of the present day is the direct consequence of the need expressed by the organization of these earlier associations and in many instances is their lineal descendant.
The first free public library law as passed in 1854, Maine being the third state to enact such legislation. Towns were authorized under this law to establish and maintain public libraries, to receive bequests and gifts and to appropriate for organization one dollar for each rateable poll and for annual maintenance twenty-five cents for each such poll. This law remained unchanged for more than thirty years and, with one exception, there is no evidence that any municipality acted under its provisions. The town of Castine established a public library in 1855, and at that time received the books and property belonging to a social library founded by William Mason and other in 1801 and subsequently incorporated under the laws of 1821.
In 1893 the passage of a new public library law not only permitted but encouraged public libraries. They were made legal recipients and custodians of state documents, were granted a stipend of ten per cent of the amount appropriated by the municipality (changed in 1895 to ten per cent of appropriation for the library and in 1917 to not less than seven nor more than ten per cent, the stipend in no case to exceed $500) and, in the case of new libraries in towns have less than 1500 population (restriction as to population removed in 1901) were given new books to the value of half the appropriation for starting the library but not exceeding $100. The older association libraries were given the benefits of the act when made entirely free as a result of municipal appropriation. Librarians and others were allowed to apply to the State Library for advice and instruction in library matters. As illustrative of the extension of public libraries under this act the State Library report of 1894 enumerated thirty-four public libraries and forty-four not free, whereas the report of the United States Bureau of Education for 1876 listed seventeen social and eight public libraries, only three of which were free.
Since 1893 the number of libraries has steadily increased, and the opening of the centennial year finds Maine with two hundred and twelve public libraries, one hundred and thirteen of which are entirely free and ninety-nine require a small fee. The total number of books in these libraries is 1,120,230.
The Maine Library Association, organized in 1891, has, since its reorganization in 1901, been an active agency in energizing the library spirit of the state. Two meeting are held each year -- one in the spring, and one in the fall at the same place and time as the Maine Teacher's Convention.
The entire library situation is now more promising than at any other time in history of the state. Trustees are asking for trained and efficient workers, municipalities are requiring adequate service and librarians are consistently and constantly striving to raise themselves and their libraries to the highest standards demanded by our modern professional and industrial life.