Public libraries were often started with a donation, or were bequeathed to parishes, churches, schools or towns.These social and institutional libraries formed the base of many academic and public library collections of today.Public libraries typically allow users to borrow books and other materials, i.e., take off the premises temporarily; they also have non-circulating reference collections and provide computer and Internet access to patrons.
(six years after Thomas Bodley founded the Bodleian Library, which was open to the "whole republic of the learned") and Chetham's Library in Manchester, which claims to be the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, opened in 1653.
Public libraries are distinct from research libraries, school libraries, and other special libraries in that their mandate is to serve the general public's information needs rather than the needs of a particular school, institution, or research population.
Public libraries also provide free services such as preschool story times to encourage early literacy, quiet study and work areas for students and professionals, or book clubs to encourage appreciation of literature in adults.
The circulation desk is in most cases staffed by library support staff instead of professional librarians.
Public service librarians must look to the law to determine their legal obligations and potential liability relating to privacy of library use.