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The public library movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led to a significant expansion of library services across the United States. We study the impact of state-level institutional development on the creation of local public goods. State library commissions were modestly funded state entities charged with helping localities establish libraries. State library associations were voluntary organizations with a similar mission, having as members the librarians of existing public libraries. Library-enabling legislation clarified the legality and taxation possibilities for local government entities such as towns, municipalities and counties to support libraries. Employing panel data drawn from a series of detailed reports on public libraries conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Education, we use a difference-in-differences methodology to identify the impact of commissions, associations, and enabling legislation on library development in matched pairs of counties that straddle state borders. Our results suggest that state-level institutions and legislation had a statistically and economically significant effect on public library development. The finding has implications for future interpretations of the history of the United States as a “nation of joiners”; local civic engagement and associational life was importantly influenced by larger scale civic and political action.

JEL classifications: H40, H75, N31, N32, N41, N42


Version: August 3, 2016

This is a working paper.

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Economics Commons



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