Thomas Bray, a founder of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), led the establishment of the first government-supported libraries in the American colonies from 1695 to 1704. These “provincial libraries” were organized with support of colonial officials for the benefit of the colony as a whole. About 75% of the volumes in Bray’s provincial libraries were religious works. Among the non-religious books were works of Plutarch, Terence, Virgil, Horace, Juvenal, and Persius.^ Bray’s provincial libraries provided reading for the social and intellectual elite.
Bray also founded “layman’s libraries.” The “layman’s libraries” offered books for general use, “to be Lent or Given at the Discretion of the Minister” or other public officials. These books were exclusively religious books and tracts.^
Bray headed an initiative to provide books to prisoners in London. In 1702, Bray presented to SPCK a proposal to provide to prisoners “a Bible to every Chamber, many Common Prayer Books, Whole Duties of Man, Christian Monitor, Dr Isham’s Office for the Sick, Mr Kettlewell’s Office for Prisoners, &c.”^ Bray and SPCK did not distinguish sharply between books for non-prisoners and books for prisoners.
The books in Bray’s provincial libraries were more religious and more serious than the books in the Philadelphia prison library in 1809. About half of the books in the Philadelphia prison library were religious works. The Philadelphia prison library included Doddridge’s Life of Colonel Gardine, More’s Stories for the Young, and Babble’s The Prater. Bray’s provincial libraries in 1700 had a larger share of religious books and did not include playful fictional texts.