Since the mid-1800s, when the first American public libraries were established, the proper role of the library as a public institution has been debated within the professional community. A systematic examination of that debate, this study provides an historical survey of the public library's view of itself--its development, social and educational functions, and larger purposes within American society. Williams begins with a discussion of the creation of the Boston Public Library. He assesses public satisfaction with the services that libraries have consistently provided, including books for the recreational reader, materials and assistance to students, and children's programs designed to make books attractive and interesting to younger readers. He looks at the changing aspirations of the community of librarians, which has envisioned the institution variously as an agency for continuing education, a civic center of inspiration and uplift for the people, and a center for the political enlightenment of the masses. The author maintains that the gulf between public and professional perceptions needs to be addressed by present-day librarians, who continue to be faced with conflicting notions of what the library's role should be. He suggests that the professional community must sooner or later integrate a broader vision of the library's purpose with the expectations of the public it is intended to serve. Both entertaining and informative, this book offers new insights and historical perspectives that will be of particular interest to the fields of library science and American social and intellectual history.