History of the Library

This article explains the history the Wilmington Institute Free Library.

There is evidence, in the form of a hand written receipt for dues, that the earliest Wilmington Library was first incorporated in 1754.

It is further believed that there was a hiatus in service due to inadequate funds during the Revolutionary War. Service resumed when the Library Company of Wilmington reincorporated in 1788 with the help of John Dickinson, Jacob Broom and Gunning Bedford, three prominent Delawareans who were also original signatories of the U.S. Constitution.

The early Library was located at the residence of the Librarian who was responsible for maintaining collections for members who paid dues to use the technology oriented materials. As the size of the collections grew, the Library quarters likewise expanded. The Town Hall, as it moved from the Marketplace near the river to 5th and Market Streets, was the primary site until 1861 when the John Dickinson Mansion at 8th and Market was razed and a new building was constructed to meet the needs of the Library. Functioning as an Institute (since 1859 the Library offered technical classes to Wilmington’s growing number of tradesmen), the building also included first floor retail shops for the convenience of a very busy downtown clientele.

In 1894 philanthropist William P. Bancroft donated $20,000 to satisfy the Library’s debt, enlisted the financial aid of the City of Wilmington and made the Library free to all citizens. The State legislation which created the governing Board of Managers in 1893 also provided for ex-officio members of the Board including public officials and school administrators. The Library, today, remains a private corporation, the stock of which (3,000 shares) is held in equal amounts by ten elected members.

From the very inception of the Library, financial support has been available from both the public and private segments of the community. Although it was a subscription library until 1894, the collections were housed in public buildings. Later the City of Wilmington, New Castle County, the State of Delaware and the Federal Government, to varying degrees during the Library’s history, have all provided operating funds to support public services. In addition, many prominent individuals and families have offered their guidance and support as members of the Board of Managers, as well as through their influence as corporate leaders. Tatnall, Bissell, Canby, du Pont, Biddle, Hoopes, Copeland, Ward, Reese, Rhoads, Winchester, Laird, Speakman and Pearson and others all represent the excellent quality of leadership offered to the Library during both prosperous times and lean years. The public/private partnership offered by local government and interested public spirited community leaders is responsible for the library as it exists today.

During the early 20th Century when the Library began to once again feel the need for improved space, Pierre S. du Pont spearheaded a campaign to provide a larger building and improved services. Mr. du Pont donated the property for the current building, chaired the art committee which supervised the architectural development of the building and chaired the campaign to raise funds for the new building. He was instrumental in attracting the support of public funds and also $300,000 from 3,000 individuals for the completion of the new Library. The Library was dedicated in 1922 and remained physically unchanged until 1970 when the interior was extensively renovated. Pierre du Pont’s influence and leadership within the Board of Managers has long been perpetuated by subsequent Boards. The du Pont family’s interest in the educational and cultural welfare of the community is well known. Henry B. du Pont and Lammot du Pont Copeland each served over thirty years as Manager of the Library. Edward B. du Pont, with the longest tenure among current Managers, spearheaded the major capital and endowment campaign of the 1980’s in an effort to improve book collections, to add staff and to automate library systems.

As the public/private partnership for library support is perpetuated by the constant demand for excellence in public library service by individuals who live in Wilmington and by the business community which cares for the welfare of its working employees, the Wilmington Library continues to meet the challenge of those demands by continually evaluating and striving to improve its quality of library service.

The Library’s strength through the years has been its staff. Dedicated and loyal to the concept of excellent service, the library staff has been flexible in its effort to meet new public demands. Now in its third century of service, the Library is truly aware of the challenges presented by an information oriented society. The Library will continue to change as the demands of its services change. Books will always be the basis for library service, but the volume of information made available by new technology presents the most interesting of challenges – to blend traditional library service with futuristic concepts of retrieving information. The history of the Library has recorded similar past challenges; let future histories of the Library record similar Library successes in meeting the challenges of the third hundred years.

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