The Boston Public Library is the largest municipal public library in the United States and was established in 1848. It was the first publicly supported municipal library in the United States and the first public library to allow people to borrow books and other materials. The Boston Public Library is also the library of last recourse of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; all adult residents of the state are entitled to borrowing and research privileges, and the library receives state funding.
With 14.9 million volumes, the Boston Public Library is the third largest library in the United States. In addition to its extensive circulating library, which includes works in many languages, the Boston Public Library's collection has special strengths in art and art history (available on the third floor of the McKim building) and American history (including significant research material), and maintains a depository of governmental documents. There are large collections of prints, works on paper, photographs, and maps, rare books, incunabula, and medieval manuscripts.
In 1888, Charles Follen McKim, of the architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White, was engaged to design the new building, opened in 1895. This building included a children's room, the first in the nation, and a sculpture garden in its central courtyard surrounded by an arcaded gallery in the manner of a Renaissance cloister. To Copley Square the library presents a facade reminiscent of a sixteenth century Italian palazzo (illustration, top). The arcaded windows of its facade owe a debt to the side elevations of Alberti's Tempio Malatestiana, Rimini, the first fully Renaissance building. McKim also drew on the Bibliotheque Ste. Genevieve in Paris (1845 to 1851). McKim did not simply imitate his models, however; the three central bays are subtly emphasized without breaking the rhythm. The library also represents one of the first major applications in the United States of thin tile vaults by the Catalan master builder Rafael Guastavino. Seven different types of Guastavino vaulting can be seen in the Boston Public Library.
Architect Charles Follen McKim chose to have inscribed monumental inscriptions, similar to those found on basilicas and monuments in ancient Rome, in the entablature on each of the main building's three facades.
On the south is inscribed: "MDCCCLII * FOUNDED THROUGH THE MUNIFICENCE AND PUBLIC SPIRIT OF CITIZENS;"
On the east: "THE PUBLIC LIBRARY OF THE CITY OF BOSTON * BUILT BY THE PEOPLE AND DEDICATED TO THE ADVANCEMENT OF LEARNING * A.D. MDCCCLXXXVIII"