‘A kind of Paradise:’ the origins of the public library in Britain

Writers have always been keen on libraries. There is an almost religious feel to the two quotations, written centuries apart, that I have chosen to illustrate this: Marcus Tullius Cicero (d. 43BC)  wrote: “To add a library to a house is to give that house a soul” and Jorge Luis Borges (d. 1986) famously described a library as a “kind of Paradise.”

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t go to the library. I grew up in a house where there were only a few books, perhaps four or five. But they took me to the local public library when I was very small and for that I am extremely grateful. Most of us take free access to education for granted and the public library service is part of that. We are, perhaps, about to enter a time when we can no longer do so. If that is the case, we will be turning back the clock to a time when education was considered to be a privilege and not a right.

In the early 19th century, there was a heated political debate amongst writers and thinkers in Britain about the education of the poor.  Although it was believed that the labouring-classes could benefit from religious education in particular, even liberal and philanthropic writers, such as Hannah More, worried about the effects of learning on the poor. An anonymous writer in John Bull, for example wrote: “We over-educate the poor and what do they say? That they are superior to the drudgery of cotton-spinning… or other menial offices.” (30 October, 1825). William Cobbett believed that Sunday Schools were to be discouraged because they made “scholars of those whose business it is to delve.” (Political Register, 14 May, 1803).

There was a genuine dilemma here. Poverty and ignorance were recognized as causes of tremendous social discord during the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Labourers were rioting, arson attacks on farmers and clergymen were not infrequent, the ruling classes were concerned about consumption of alcohol amongst the poor and general standards of behaviour were thought to be in decline. Even the Black Acts, the notorious legislation which enabled magistrates to transport people to the Colonies for relatively minor crimes such as poaching and petty theft, had not deterred some people from crime. The Houses of Industry or Workhouses continued to be the last resort for paupers, but they had not provided a solution to the “problem” of the poor.

Some philanthropists began to recognise that a low level of education might be beneficial to society in general. However, even those whom we now think of as being relatively enlightened were aware of the dangers of what they saw as over-educating the working classes. Patrick Colquhoun, in an essay proposing a new system of education for the labouring people of England, published in 1806, wrote: “Utopian schemes for an extensive diffusion of knowledge would be injurious and absurd.  A right bias to their minds, and a sufficient education to enable them to preserve, and to estimate properly, the religious and moral instruction they receive, is all that is, or ought ever to be, in contemplation. To go beyond this point would be to confound the ranks of society upon which the general happiness of the lower orders, no less than those that are more elevated, depends; since by indiscriminate education those destined for laborious occupations would become discontented and unhappy…”

By the mid-19th century, the argument for a basic general education had largely been won. In 1849, William Ewart MP, introduced a Public Libraries Act, but there was considerable hostility, particularly from the Conservative Party, who felt that ratepayers should not have to pay for a service that would mainly be used by the working classes. The Public Libraries Act became law in 1850. William Ewart wanted all boroughs to have the power to finance public libraries, but the legislation only applied to boroughs with populations of over 10,000. Borough Councils also had to obtain the consent of two-thirds of local ratepayers, no more than a halfpenny in the pound could be levied and the money raised could not be usedto purchase books.

 Despite this, Ewart’s Act was the beginning of a golden age of public education with the library service as the jewel in its crown. At the beginning of the 21st century there were over 3500 public libraries in England, providing all kinds of services, from local studies to Baby Bounce & Rhyme groups. The Museums, Libraries & Archives Council (itself to be abolished by Culture Minister, Jeremy Hunt) reported in 2010 that “satisfaction among [public library] service users is high with 92% of respondents to the CIPFA Public Library Users Survey (PLUS) saying that overall their library was ‘good’ or ‘very good’.” [http://www.mla.gov.uk/what/research/sector_statistics]

Things look rather bleak for public libraries in England at the moment. One wonders, in the face of such evidence of success and ‘consumer satisfaction,’ what exactly the government’s rationale for the closure of public libraries is. It would be absurd, wouldn’t it, to suggest that there are people in our government who are so cynical as to believe that a good education is unnecessary for McJobs and supermarket shelf-stacking?

William Ewart was a Liberal MP. It would be a profound betrayal of its roots if that party (albeit in coalition with the Tories) were to preside over the beginning of the end of the public library service.

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