New modern ruins: a brief history of public libraries

I remember my first real library. I was five years old and had just moved and was not yet in school. It was a weekday and the wooden green library building was empty. My mother took me and we entered the children’s room, which had a dusty wooden atmosphere. The books that stick most in mind from that day was a row of original L Frank Baum ‘Wizard of Oz’ books – turn of the century illustrated hardbacks that were prequels or sequels to the novel that was turned into the film. In the end I left with a copy of Andrew Lang fairy tales, ‘The Yellow Book’ to accompany the red that was already on my shelf at home.

Since that day, different libraries have always reminded me of specific books. An incredibly scary story of an Egyptian demon haunting museums that I used to hide under my bed the month I borrowed it aged 10. Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’ on the wooden shelves of the Victorian library during my exams aged 17 – notoriously the most stolen book in school history. A hardback Italian tome on Bronzino at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s stunning hidden reference library. Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia’ in the concrete Brutalist library of the University of York. Battered copies of Jon Savage at the Westminster Reference Library at the back of Leicester Square in Soho.

Libraries and the books in them feel like memory. Something faded and in the past. The following homage and history to local public libraries is intentionally factual and detached. Yet behind the story of buildings of books is the history of socialism, the power of education and a heartfelt desire that libraries should not become ruins in our increasingly digital world.

There is evidence that scrolls were available for reference in Roman Bath complexes, though only to be viewed on site. One of the most notable libraries of the ancient world, however, was notably destroyed by The Romans. The Great Library in Alexandria was established by Pharaoh Ptolemy I after Alexander the Great’s death. It was a centre for scholars in the 3rd century BC until it was destroyed in 48 BC. According to Plutarch, when Julius Caesar attacked Ptolemy, he set fire to the Egyptian fleet, which spread from the dockyard and destroyed the library.

Later in the 9th century AD halls of sciences in North Africa, libraries were open to the public but the books could only be consulted on site for reference. In Britain, many university libraries were founded in the 17th century. The most notable was the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. It was formally established in 1610 by Sir Thomas Bodley to prevent the destruction of books during moments of political and religious upheaval.

Throughout the 17th century a number of public libraries were founded throughout Britain – Ipswich in 1612, Bristol in 1615, and Leicester in 1632. This echoed the increase in printing access and the translation of the bible from Latin into the common tongue. Booksellers would rent spare copies of books to the public, largely to landowners and the ruling classes who owned shares in the library. By 1790 there were an estimated 600 rental libraries in Britain.

The rise of the novel was one of the driving forces in the growth of public libraries. This was particularly due to the huge rise of female readers. Circulating libraries containing fiction were attached to milliners or fabric shops – existing as a shelf in a local stationer for example rather than a devoted building. Libraries were not just a result of these early examples in female emancipation but also linked to social changes as a result of the industrial revolution. In the north of England in particular, which was the heart of British manufacturing with a large concentration of factories, libraries began to emerge directed at the working class, such as the Kendal Economical Library for tradesman which was established in the late 18th century. Manchester in particular became the focus for the library movement.

Liberal MPs William Edward and Joseph Brotherton join forces in the 1940s to establish a public library system. Their third partner in the fight for libraries was a former bricklayer Edward Edwards, who had educated himself at Mechanics’ Institute libraries when he didn’t work and became an assistant in the Printed Books dept. at the British Museum in 1839. The self-taught man was also a Chartist who fought for universal vote.

Their fight coincided with The Free Library Movement, which aimed (like many Victorian Christian paternalist movements) to improve the public through education. It was strongly linked to the temperance movement. Better to read than to drink. There was strong opposition in Parliament to the bill Ewart, Borotherton and Edwards proposed. The ruling classes did not want to pay taxes to educate the working class. There was a sense of Conservative fear towards the social transformation and radical politics of the mid 19th century.

The act however was successful, for boroughs with a population of over 10,000 people. After the 1850 Public Libraries Act was passed, public libraries opened in Winchester, Manchester, Liverpool, Bolton, Kidderminster, Cambridge, Birkenhead and Sheffield. The act was extended to Scotland and Ireland in 1853. Edward Edwards became the chief librarian of Manchester first public library – a library where Engels and Marx researched parts of Das Kapital. However Edwards was dismissed in 1858 for his radical politics.

Despite the penny tax to fund libraries, the cost to establish them was too much. The system relied heavily on wealthy supporters including Henry Tate, the self-made millionaire who established the Tate gallery in the former Millbank prison, who established libraries in Balham, Lambeth and Brixton in South London. The journalist, owner of London newspaper ‘The Echo’ and Liberal MP John Passmore Edwards established 24 libraries amongst other bequests in the late 19th century. The most notable supporter of libraries was the Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie helped to finance libraries over 380 libraries in Britain.

World War II saw libraries at their most powerful and integrated into British life. Temporary branches popped up in pubs, shops and churches throughout the war. Loan times were extended to keep in mind travel restrictions. There was a huge boom in reading during the war, and libraries were also used as information centres, theatres and exhibition halls. Arguably the success of libraries echoed the positive intentions of the Welfare State, which was established after the end of the war – the start of government run unemployment and child benefits and the National Health Service.

In the 1970s writers threatened to remove their books from libraries in protest to lack of compensation. The Public Lending Right Act of 1979 provided a scheme to pay writers and artists for books in libraries. £7.4 million was provided by the British government between 2003-4.

In 2000 the Library Association stated that only 15 libraries throughout the UK were open more than 60 hours per week. Between 1993 and 2000, 203 libraries were closed in the UK, a trend that is increasing dramatically under the current coalition government and spending cuts. In 2010 the government abolished the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council, giving all responsibility of public libraries to the already underfunded Arts Council England in a bid to lower costs. Libraries are increasingly focusing on providing digital access to the public for free in an aim to stay alive. There are 92 million books in UK libraries.

This article was originally published in Junk Jet.