Although traditionally termed the people's university, since its inception in 1850 the rate-supported municipal public library has by no means appealed to everyone. Indeed, at times, and in certain places and various ways, its impact has been disappointing. On the other hand, who could deny that the public library has successfully emerged over the past century and a half as an integral ingredient of the social fabric of our villages, towns and cities. It is ingrained in our cultural folklore. Historians of the public library are consequently best advised to view their subject as a part of, rather than apart from, society. Yet, often popularly portrayed as an unremarkable, ‘backwater’ institution, its relevance marginal and its level of social engagement tending towards the passive, the public library has not always inspired studies that address the contexts in which it has been rooted. The temptation of narrowly conceived, descriptive research has often proved too strong for historians of the movement, many of them librarians eager to draw attention to an institution for which they have considerable intellectual and nostalgic respect and which they may have sought to promote in ways that are accessible, digestible and productive. No excuses are offered here for being similarly tempted and commencing this chapter with a descriptive account of the past legislative apparatus, ‘official’ efforts and fundamental development of the public library. These ‘foundational’ data not only serve to celebrate, as we should, the historic value of the public library, but also provide a sextant to those who are new to the subject.