In 1841, Alexandre Vattemare, a Frenchman, suggested that all of Boston’s libraries combine themselves into one institution for the benefit of the public. The idea was presented to many Boston libraries, however, most were uninterested in the idea. At Vattemare’s urging, Paris sent gifts of books in 1843 and 1847 to assist in establishing a unified public library. Vattemare made yet another gift of books in 1849.
Josiah Quincy, Jr. anonymously donated $5,000 to begin the funding of a new library. Quincy made the donation while he was mayor of Boston. Indirectly, John Jacob Astor also influenced the establishment of a public library in Boston. At the time of his death, Astor bequeathed $400,000 to New York to establish a public library there. Because of the cultural and economic rivalry between Boston and New York, this bequest prompted more discussion of establishing a public library in Boston. In 1848, a statute of the Great and General Court of Massachusetts enabled the creation of the library. The library was officially established in Boston by a city ordinance in 1852.
Eager to support the library, Edward Everett collected documents from both houses of Congress, bound them at his own expense, and offered this collection to help establish the new library. At the time of Everett’s donation, George Ticknor became involved in the active planning for the new library. In 1852, financier Joshua Bates gave a gift of $50,000 to establish a library in Boston. After Bates' gift was received, Ticknor made lists of what books to purchase. He traveled extensively to purchase books for the library, visit other libraries, and set up book agencies.
To house the collection, a former schoolhouse located on Mason Street was selected as the library's first home. On March 20, 1854, the Reading Room of the Boston Public Library officially opened to the public. The circulation department opened on May 2, 1854.
The opening day collection of 16,000 volumes fit in the Mason Street building, but it quickly became obvious that its quarters were inadequate. So in December 1854, the library's commissioners authorized the library to move to a new building on Boylston Street. Designed by Charles Kirk Kirby to hold 240,000 volumes, the imposing Italianate edifice opened in 1858. But eventually the library outgrew that building as well; in 1878, an examining committee recommended replacing it with a new one at another location.
By 1880, the Massachusetts legislature authorized construction of an even grander library building. A site selected was in Back Bay on Copley Square -- the prominent corner of Boylston Street and Dartmouth Street, opposite Richardson's Trinity Church and near the first Boston Museum of Fine Arts. After several years of debate over the selection of the architects and architectural style for the new library, in 1887 the prestigious New York firm of McKim, Mead, and White was chosen to design the new library. In 1888, Charles Follen McKim proposed a design based on Renaissance style which met approval from the trustees of the library, and construction commenced.
When it opened in 1895, the new Boston Public Library was proclaimed a "palace for the people." This building included a children's room, the first in the nation, and a sculpture garden in its central courtyard surrounded by an arcaded gallery in the manner of a Renaissance cloister.
To Copley Square the library presents a façade reminiscent of Palazzo della Cancelleria, a sixteenth century Italian palace in Rome (illustration, top). The arcaded windows of its façade owe a debt to the side elevations of Alberti's Tempio Malatestiano, Rimini, the first fully Renaissance building. McKim also drew on the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris (built 1845 to 1851). McKim did not simply imitate his models, however; the three central bays are subtly emphasized without breaking the rhythm. The library also represents one of the first major applications in the United States of thin tile vaults by the Catalan master builder Rafael Guastavino. Seven different types of Guastavino vaulting can be seen in the Boston Public Library.
The last quotation has been attributed to the library's Board of Trustees. Another inscription, above the keystone of the central entrance, proclaims: "FREE TO ALL". Across the street from the central entrance to the library is a twentieth-century monument to the Lebanese-born poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran who as a young immigrant educated himself in the Boston Public Library. The monument's inscription responds to the McKim building reading "IT WAS IN MY HEART TO HELP A LITTLE, BECAUSE I WAS HELPED MUCH". The text is excerpted from a letter enclosed with Gibran's generous bequest to the library.
Since opening, the Johnson building became the home for the BPL's main circulating collection, which includes works in many languages. It also serves as headquarters for the Boston Public Library's 26 branch libraries. The McKim building houses the BPL's research collection.
Included in the BPL's research collection are more than 1.7 million rare books and manuscripts. It possesses several large and important collections, including first edition folios by William Shakespeare, records of colonial Boston, and the 3,800 volume personal library of John Adams. It has special strengths in art and art history (available on the third floor of the McKim building) and American history (including significant research material), and maintains a depository of governmental documents. There are large collections of prints, works on paper, photographs, and maps, rare books, incunabula, and medieval manuscripts.
Murals include recently restored paintings by John Singer Sargent on the theme of Judaism and Christianity; Edwin Austin Abbey's most famous work, a series of murals which depict the Grail legend; and paintings of the Muses by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.
The library regularly displays its rare works, often in exhibits that will combine works on paper, rare books, and works of art. Several galleries in the third floor of the McKim building are maintained for exhibits. Rooms are also available for lectures and meetings.
For all these reasons, the historian David McCullough has described the Boston Public Library as one of the five most important libraries in America, the others being the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and the university libraries of Harvard and Yale.
Unfortunately, in recent years the Library has not been funded adequately befitting its status. For example, staffing and funding levels for conservation, as of 2006, are below its peers: the BPL's staff of two full-time conservators compares poorly with the New York Public Library's thirty-five. Many colonial records and John Adams manuscripts are brittle, decaying, and in need of attention prompting the library's acting Keeper of Rare Books and Manuscripts to say that "they are falling apart.