The first public libraries in Maryland

In December 1698 this entry was recorded in the Chapter Acts:

Ordered that 20 [pounds] be paid to Dr Bray out of Membury timber money, towards the compleating his Libraries in Maryland.

The Dr Bray in question was Thomas Bray, the son of a poor Shropshire farmer who overcame financial difficulties to pay for his education and became a well-known preacher and pioneer of American public libraries.

After graduating from All Souls College Oxford he became a schoolmaster before being ordained. His preaching brought him to the attention of Simon Lord Digby which led to his appointment to three Warwickshire parishes.

In 1695 he published a book of lectures designed to help the clergy explain the catechism to their congregations; this proved so popular it made a profit of £700 and brought Bray to the attention of the Bishop of London who appointed him to oversee pastors for the parishes in the American colony of Maryland.

Before going to Maryland Bray needed to find priests who would be willing to relocate and undertake parish work in the colony. However, he found that it was mostly poor members of the clergy who volunteered for such distant appointments and they could not afford the books which they would need – Thomas Bray became determined to provide them with libraries.

This project was a groundbreaking undertaking because, prior to Bray’s efforts, the only public libraries in North America were to be found in a small number of universities. Thomas Bray was so successful in his efforts that by the time of his death in 1730 he had founded 39 libraries in North America, some with more than 1000 volumes.

Kelda Roe (Archives Assistant)

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.