When librarians from throughout the nation met in Philadelphia in 1876 to found the American Library Association, the Quaker City boasted numerous private, subscription libraries, but no free, public library like those established in many American cities during the preceding decades. After the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania regulated municipal libraries in 1887, Dr. William Pepper, a physician, educator, and the provost of the University of Pennsylvania, launched an effort to establish a free library in Philadelphia. Simultaneously, he launched a similar effort to erect a modern library building at the university. Designed by famous architect Frank Furness, the university's library was quickly completed by 1891; the Free Library's main building, on the other hand, would not be completed for nearly four decades.
In 1889, Pepper convinced his wealthy uncle George S. Pepper to bequeath approximately $225,000 to establish a governing apparatus for a Free Library of Philadelphia, which would in turn raise an endowment to build and maintain a library system. After his uncle's death in 1890, Pepper assembled a group of prominent Philadelphians to organize the library. The following year, on February 18, 1891, they chartered an institution "for the use of the People of Philadelphia, a general library which shall be free to all." But even before they acted, three private libraries filed a lawsuit disputing the will and claiming the bequest.
Prevented by the litigation from founding the library, Pepper persuaded the City to inaugurate a library system with public funds. Directed by the Board of Education, the City's library system, named the Philadelphia Public Library, opened its first of six branches at the Wagner Free Institute of Science in 1892. In early 1894, the courts ruled in favor of the Free Library in its legal battle over the Pepper will, granting it the entirety of the bequest. Freed from litigation and guided by the motto "Liber Libere Omnibus," meaning "Free Books for All," Head Librarian John Thomson opened the Free Library's first central branch at City Hall in March, 1894.
At the end of 1894, the City Councils consolidated the Philadelphia Public Library into the Free Library of Philadelphia under a new Board of Trustees, which, together with the original Board of Directors, continued to operate the library. Until his untimely death in 1898, founder William Pepper headed the library. That year, the Free Library, only in operation a short time, already boasted 160 employees, fourteen branches, and 250,000 volumes. Its circulation, 1,778,387 for the year, was the world's largest. More than a century later, Pepper's words continue to guide the Free Library of Philadelphia: "This is the People's Library, absolutely free to all."
Founding, 1889-1898 | Quest for a Home, 1894-1910 | Initial Plans, 1910-1912 | Delays, 1912-1919 | Construction, 1920-1926 ||
Opening Day, June 2, 1927 | Central and Logan Circle