Welcome to the Common Place: The Public Library, Civil Society and Early America Values website. On it readers will find information about the research and writing of the book over a roughly four year period. The selection of the sixteen public library case studies is explained and the background questionnaire completed with Library Directors presented. Portions of the Common Place bibliography contained at the conclusion of the book is here annotated. Many of the pictures contained in the book are included (in color) along with others taken or collected but not used.

The website contains FAQs (below) based on reader inquires made through either this site or by email (see Contact menu) while the blog section is available for reader and author commentary and dialogue. The website also contains reader feedback and links to reviews of Common Place, as well as the locations and dates of past and upcoming book talks.

Fake News Guidance in the Ashaway Free Library

Reviews and Reader Feedback

Common Place, Johnson’s first book, is a tour de force that explores the origins of the public library system in America. While many Americans may assume that public libraries exist(ed) worldwide, this illuminating book details the gradual evolution of a uniquely American institution that originated in New England. The father of this great social, cultural and educational institution is none other than Benjamin Franklin. The Sentinel, Belchertown, MA

We received the copy you sent to the Franklin Public Library. I looked through the book in awe. It is brilliantly done from the cover, the pictures and the narrative; all took my breath away. I cannot wait to share the book with the community. Director, Franklin Public Library

I particularly enjoyed reading about the libraries in communities where I feel a connection. I now want to visit the Franklin Public Library. Benjamin Franklin was my first American hero, at the age of 10. I would love to see the original books he donated. A most enjoyable and informative read! Reader in Amherst, MA.


How did the author learn about public libraries?

As the Preface to Common Place notes, the author began this book project as a real fan of public libraries but that fact certainly does not imply he was an expert on them. The author read extensively about libraries in general, and the case study libraries in particular, including strategic plans and other internal documents. Aside from interviewing the library directors, he corresponded with several when questions arose. For the insights they provided, special thanks is due to the directors in Biddeford, Franklin, Lexington and Peterborough. However, the author learned the most by far from his advisor on the project, Maureen Sullivan, who besides authoring the book Foreword, advised on what factors help make a public library great and read early and the final drafts of the manuscript. The author could not have learned about libraries from a better teacher. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maureen_Sullivan_(librarian))

Did the author visit all the case study libraries? What happened during the visits?

Yes, the author visited all the libraries at least once. Over a three month period in late 2018-early 2019, four trips were made to libraries in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, Connecticut and Rhode Island, and Vermont. The main purpose was to interview the library director and in several cases library board members who were invited to attend. On a few occasions the director also invited a “friend of the library” representative to participate. During the visit the author took exterior and interior photographs and spent time simply observing use by patrons. Repeat visits were made in some cases to take additional During the visits to Connecticut and Vermont the author also met and spoke with the respective State Librarians.

What questions did the author ask the directors of the case study libraries?

The author developed and used a standard questionnaire (below) when interviewing the library directors and in some cases library board members. Each questionnaire form began with information on the interview time and place, library name and address, interviewee name and title, years at the library and contact info.

Would like to first ask a few questions about the library’s past…

Is there any written history of this library? (show The Jones Library Amherst book)

If so, is it available here?

Do you have, or do know any individuals who have a good idea of the library’s history? If so, what is/are their name(s)?

Who was responsible for founding the library, and why?

Thinking now of the present…

How are operating costs today funded? Approximately what proportion come from the local government and state?

How many full-time staff work at the library?

Is there a library association or similar group? If so, how long has it been in existence?

Are there volunteers? If so, who are they?

How is this library used other than for books?



Other community use

On a typical weekly basis what is the approx. number of patrons?

How does this number compare with 10 years ago? 25 years ago?

In descending order, what age group(s) use the library the most, and how (read/check-out books, computer/internet, meetings, other)? What percentage of the total number of patrons would you estimate?

Children under 12

Teenagers 13 – 19

Young adults 20 – 30

Adults 30 – 65

Seniors over 65

What day(s) and time(s) are most popular, and why?

How would you characterize community support for this library?




In terms of the future…

Do you anticipate library use to increase or decline over time, say the next 5-years, and why?

If funding was not (the sole) object, what steps do you believe could be taken to increase usage and overall community support?

Any other comments to add?

What is the author’s favorite library featured in the book?

That’s a tough question to answer since different features need to be considered including the collection, degree of community engagement, leadership, architecture, siting in the townscape, etc. Considering these factors the top six libraries in the author’s view, in no particular order are Montpelier, Biddeford, Franklin, Lexington, Peterborough and Holyoke.

What books did early public libraries hold in their collections?

Readers of Common Place may recall from Section I of the book that most if not all public libraries were preceded by members only social libraries (essentially clubs) such as Franklin’s Library Company in Philadelphia and then subscription libraries which offered access to books for a fee. Professor Wayne A. Wiegand notes in his book, Part of our Lives that books in the former typically consisted of works to “propagate Virtue, Knowledge & useful Thinking.” For example, a 1794 catalog of what became the Redwood Athenaeum in Newport, RI listed 700 titles, 33 percent high culture literature, 19 percent science, 16 percent history, 13 percent theology and 8 percent law. The remaining 11 percent consisted of books on travel, agricultural and military sciences and biographies. Note the absence of “light” fiction (i.e., novels), which was typical of high-brow social libraries. Franklin’s donation of books to his namesake town also consisted of serious reading with volumes by Locke, Bellamy, Newton, Thomas’ Law of Massachusetts, Pilgrim’s Progress and many other today obscure authors. Subscription libraries, on the other hand, preferred novels since that was a growing market among readers, especially women who were becoming increasingly literate.

In general, the early public libraries struck a balance, albeit initially tilted towards non-fiction and reference books. Wiegand writes, however, that “The shift from intensive to extensive reading particularly evident in the novel’s popularity was essential to the birth of the American public library a half-century later.” He is referring to the 1850s, while the earlier public libraries featured in Common Place – Franklin, Salisbury, Lexington and Peterborough – did not feature many novels, as in part explained in the next Q&A.

Why doesn’t the book talk more about book banning?

Common Place concerns the history of the early public library movement in America while book banning is a more contemporary issue which has currently flared up according to the ALA and as reported in the media. The book’s epilogue does mention the principle of library collection “neutrality.”

In historical terms, from the mid-19th century the precept of “not censorship, but selection” took hold in the American library movement. Indeed, this began with Franklin who shunned novels in the collection of the Library Company. The 1771 constitution of the social library in Salisbury, CT, which evolved into the Scoville Library featured in Common Place, stated that the reason for the social institution was “promotion of Virtue, Education and Learning, and…the discouragement of Vice and Immorality” which many at the time felt novels did not always support. Thomas Jefferson, whose extensive personal library helped replace the collection of the Library of Congress lost when the British burned Washington, D.C. in the War of 1812, stated in 1818 “A great obstacle to good education is the inordinate passion prevalent for novels.” Some authorities went so far as to prepare manuals on appropriate reading with titles such as The American First Class Book: Exercises in Reading and Recitation.

Beginning in the 1960s school and public library books began to be scrutinized by liberals for racist and sexist themes, language and images. The Council on Interracial Books for Children found in the late 1970s that Mary Poppins was “still racist.” Conservatives also got into the act. One of the books currently being banned for its illustrations, Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, attracted attention in the early 1970s, with several public libraries in Louisiana and Pennsylvania whiting out the nakedness of a main character. In other public libraries, staff declined to add books such as William Burrough’s bestseller Naked Lunch. For a time, some librarians shunned series books for children and young adults, including Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, because their narratives stereotyped various groups including African Americans and Jews.

It is interesting that the impetus behind earlier self-censorship and today’s book-banning has shifted on the cultural spectrum from left to right.

Common Place Book Talks

McArthur Public Library, Biddeford, ME – March 11, 2023

New Gloucester Public Library, New Gloucester, ME – March 12, 2023

Munson Memorial Library, Amherst, MA – April 1, 2023

Photo Gallery

Images from my research.

From top left, clockwise, the Benjamin Franklin book donation within the Franklin Public Library, new entry to the Peterborough Town Library, renovated Peterborough Reading Room, Christmas time at the Cary Memorial Library in Lexington, MA and the “Carnegie Library” in Turners Falls, MA.

Photo Credits: Franklin books – Franklin Public Library; Peterborough Town Library – Peter Vanderwarker; Others – the Author

Appreciation Plaque, Ashaway Free Library
McArthur Public Library Children’s Section
Athol Public Library (left) adjacent to the Town Hall on Main Street
Munson Memorial Library from Fiddler’s Greem
Cary Library Interior
Field Memorial Library at Sunset
Veteran’s Memorial adjacent to the Carnegie Library, Turners Falls
Some places, like the Athol Public Library, loan more than books. In Franklin they have a “library of things” ranging from kitchen gadgets to board games.
Contemporary exterior of the Scoville Memorial Library. Note how the new addition (right) blends with the rear of the original structure
Field Memorial Library Board Members
Many public libraries, like the Otis Library in Norwich, focus on these topics
Library History in America