The multivalent character acquired by the term «public library» in the
Italian institutional context and history is highlighted. Alongside the «public state libraries» defined in official regulations in the years immediately after the unification of Italy, «popular libraries» were established between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. While their experience was interesting in certain respects, these libraries, which occasionally aspired to become «public libraries», were too weak at the structural level. The introduction of regional autonomy in 1970 was intended to permit the creation of public libraries more in line with the contemporary notion of this institution. Nevertheless, the initiative and results realised at the regional level have been inadequate: it has only been in the last few years that adequately financed structures have appeared, occasionally with state co-operation.