William Eaton Foster was born on June 2, 1851 in Brattleboro, Vermont to Joseph Coggin Foster and Abigail Eaton Foster. He was raised in Beverly, Massachusetts and attended Brown University (class of 1873) in Providence, Rhode Island. Foster skipped as many classes as possible in order to read books. After graduation, Foster worked as the librarian in the Hyde Park, Massachusetts Public Library and earned an M.A. from Brown in 1876. Foster furthered his knowledge by working as the cataloger of the Turner Free Library in Randolph, Massachusetts, a position which he held from 1876-1877. Foster continued his professional development by working at the Boston Public Library part-time for two years under the direction of Justin Winsor.
During the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, Foster attended the "Convention of Librarians" held October 4-6 at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, along with distinguished library professionals Justin Winsor (Boston Public, Harvard), William Frederick Poole (Chicago Public, Newberry), Charles Ammi Cutter (Boston Athenaeum), Melvil Dewey, and Richard Rogers Bowker. The convention marked the birth of the American Library Association, an organization which Foster continued to support throughout his life.
In 1877, Foster returned to Providence to assist in the opening of the Providence Public Library. He selected, classified and catalogued the library’s initial 10,000 volume collection. On February 4, 1878, the first Providence Public Library opened on the second floor of the Butler Exchange building in downtown Providence with Foster serving as librarian. While working as the public librarian, Foster devised his own cataloging system unaware that Melvil Dewey was working on a similar system. Though an early adopter of Dewey’s classification system, Foster was unsatisfied and exchanged the 800s (language and Literature) with 300s (Social Sciences). In 1880, Foster directed the library’s move to larger quarters in street-level rooms below the Messers. Goff, Rice and Smith’s English and Classical School on Snow Street Foster then moved the collection to the present library building, on Washington Street, which was built specifically to house the library. The building opened on March 15, 1900 with Foster serving as librarian.
Foster was an innovator who believed firmly in library service. He aimed to meet the needs of the library patrons by providing them with specific services tailored to their specific needs. Foster introduced the segregation of activities to the library. The Providence Public Library was among the first to feature an information desk and a reference desk and reference room. Foster also introduced an art department, music Division, and foreign department all to serve the needs of the growing community. Foster also started the children’s department and developed social library services for grammar school children. Under Foster’s direction, the Providence Public Library grew to include departments for special collections, architecture, Civil War, printing; adult education as well as a standard library and business branch. The library also featured monthly Reference Texts on important topics. During his tenure as librarian, Foster also actively collected library materials with varying points of view and encouraged patrons to suggest books to be purchased. Foster also wrote numerous articles for the Providence Journal in order to promote the library and spread the news about library services. In addition to writing for the newspaper, Foster also gave numerous speeches and addresses to various groups around the city as well as published books such as The Civil Service Movement (1881), Libraries and Readers (1883), Stephen Hopkins: A Rhode Island Statesman (1884), Town Government in Rhode Island (1886), The Point of View in History (1906), How to Choose Editions (1912) and The First Fifty Years of the Providence Public Library (1928). The library grew to include not only the central library, but a library system including 12 branches and over 100 miscellaneous agencies. The library collection grew from just 10,000 volumes to 400,000 with nearly 90,000 registered patrons. Foster continued to improve library service by lecturing new library trainees at the New York State Library School.
Foster was forced to retire in February 1930 due to illness. His dedication to library service was rewarded with numerous honors including an Honorary Litt.D from Brown 1901 and an honorary membership to the Rhode Island School of Design in 1930. A book plate and a plaque for the library entrance were also dedicated to him. Also in 1930, Foster was given the title “Librarian Emeritus for life” by the library trustees. Foster humbly accepted the honors given to him and insisted that all attention focus in the library itself. To Foster “an inquiring mind and an appropriate book could be one of life’s happiest unions,” a quote which summarizes Foster’s unfailing dedication to his profession. Foster died on September 10, 1930 after a long illness. He was survived by his wife of 44 years, Julia Appleton Foster. Though William E. Foster and his wife Julia did not have children, Foster left behind an incomparable legacy which continues to influence library service into the 21st century.