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The Age of Public Libraries / Public Libraries Acts.

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  • The Age of Public Libraries / Public Libraries Acts.

    Public Libraries History - The United Kingdom

    Toward the middle of the nineteenth century, the modern public library moved closer to reality by the passage of the Museums Act of 1845, primarily the work of William Ewart, who had been a member of parlaiment for Liverpool (1830-1837) and was then member for Dumfries. Impetus for passage of the act had come from a meeting held in Manchester in November 1844, a meeting presided over by Richard Cobden. Joseph Brotherton, member for Salford (also in attendance), was influenced to appeal to William Ewart to work on the proposal. The result was passage of an act "Encouraging the Establishment of Museums in Large Towns". It authorized the levying of a 1/2 d. rate in towns of not less than 10,000 population for the erection of museums of science and art; the act provided only for the building. An admission charge of 1 d. was authorized for support. Within a short time, three towns - Canterbury, Warrington and Salford - had taken advantage of the act to set up combined museums and libraries. The library at Canterbury, established in 1847, grew out of the purchase of the museum and library of the Philosophical and Library Institution. Warrington followed in the next year with the location together in rented quarters of the museum of the Warrington Natural History Society and the collections of the Warrington Subscription Library. There was a full-time curator who also served as librarian. Salford established a museum and library in 1849, although it was not opened until the following year.

    William Ewart was further stimulated to work toward a public library act by an article written by Edward Edwards*, "Statistical View of the Principal Libraries in Europe and the United States." Edwards, a prolific writer on the subject of public libraries, was then a supernumerary assistant at the British Museum and had testified before an earlier Select Committee inquiry into British Museum activities. Ewart drew upon Edwards' knowledge of libraries and by 1849 had convinced Parliament to establish a Select Committee to inquire into the establishment of "libraries freely open to the Public, especially in large towns." The committee and its successor recommended, after inquiring into libraries on the Continent and in the United States, that Parliament authorize town councils to levy a small rate to establish and support public libraries." In February 1850, Ewart moved for permission to introduce "a Bill for enabling Town Councils to establish Public Libraries and Museums." After considerable debate, the motion passed. After further debate and some amendments, the bill went to the House of Lords and then "received Royal assent" on August 14. The main provisions of the act were that corporate towns of 10,000 persons might levy a 1/2 d. rate to buy and build buildings for libraries. The Act of 1850 applied to England and Wales. It was extended in 1850 to "the Municipal Boroughs of Ireland and the Royal and Parliamentary Burghs in Scotland".

    The Museums Act passed with rather general support, but the Public Library Act ran into considerable opposition. Whatever popular support for it there might have been, it was not marshaled, partly because the franchise was not then as widely extended as later. It can be said that it was sponsored by a strong, determined minority drawn from members of the library profession and from the upper strata of society. In general, the arguments ran to extending the benefits of reading to the lower classes. The benefits were seen as social, moral, and educational. Brotherton argued that reading would reduce crime and "provide the cheapest police that could be gathered." Others argued that it would keep workers from the evils of the gin shops. Opposition came from those who objected to an increase in rates and those who feared that agitation and social unrest would result.**

    Libraries were rather slow to appear. Edward Edwards suggested that Manchester was the first to establish a library under the act, for the "preliminary subscription towards the expenses of its foundation had been set on foot, whilst the Bill was still pending in the House of Commons, by Sir John Potter..." The poll at Manchester was not taken until August 1852, "when a library of 21,000 volumes was in complete working order." The subscription raised amounted to £12,823. The first city in which a poll was taken was Norwich, however. Although the poll was taken on September 17, 1850, no service began until 1857. Twenty-three libraries were opened between the years 1851 and 1862, and 98 more between 1868 and 1886, for a total of (with the four previously established) 125.

    Manchester Public Library in the 1860s.

    Ewart attempted to have the act of 1850 amended in 1854, but it was not until the next year that the amended act became law: 'An Act for further promoting the establishment of Free Public Libraries and Museums in Municipal Towns, and for extending it to Towns governed under Local Improvement Acts, and to Parishes'. It reduced the number of inhabitants necessary to qualify under the act from 10,000 to over 5,000. Two neighbouring parishes with populations that together aggregated more than 5,000 persons and with vestries that chose to unite to establish a public library might do so. The rate was set at "one Penny in the Pound on the rateable value of the property assessed," and "Books, Newspapers, Maps, and Specimens of Art and Science, Fuel, Lighting and other similar matters" might be purchased.

    Over the years, there were a number of Public Libraries Acts, but the changes were minor, "no more than further provisions for adoption, area definitions and powers for Authorities to take joint action." In 1892 (June 27), a new Public Libraries Bill received Royal Assent. The act repealed former legislation and, in effect, consolidated previous advances and changes. The act of 1919 not only permitted the development of urban library service by removing the rate limitation, but it also gave library powers to counties. A major drawback of the national library legislation of the latter half of the nineteenth century had been the continuation of the penny rate limitation. A number of library authorities, about 30 by 1900, had freed themselves of the limitation "by means of clauses in Local Acts." It was not until the close of the year 1919 (December 23), however, that the rate limitation was removed. Other provisions of the act were important too. County Councils might now adopt the Public Libraries Acts for all or part of their areas. They might accept library powers from existing library authorities or give up, with approval of the Education Committee, their powers "in respect of any part of its library area to permit the establishment of an independent library service." As Lionel McColvin pointed out, the county system was in position to serve "people living under a variety of circumstances - in isolated farms, in little villages, in mining and industrial townships, in new towns and in the suburbs." This act was a dominant factor in library development from 1919 to 1965.

    Andrew Carnegie contributed significantly to the public library movement in the United Kongdom, as he did in the United States. His first gift was that of £8000 to his native Dumfermline in 1879. By 1883 the library had opened. Carnegie made subsequent grants in Scotland and in England. As in America, grants were usually for buildings and equipment, not for books or operation. By the time of his death, about half the library authorities in England and Wales and more than half in Scotland had benefited from his generosity. In 1913, he created the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust (CUKT) with a capital of £2,000,000, and he indicated libraries were a high priority. Most of the public library development had come in the larger cities and towns. It was logical, therefore, that the Carnegie Trust would turn its attention toward helping the rural areas of the counties.

    *Edwards was particularly impressed with the state of libraries in France at the time he was writing (1850s), the result of the fact "that in some eminent instances French Municipal Councils have consistenly displayed, during a series of years, an enlightened appreciation of the value of storehouses of learning."

    Encyclopedia of library and information science, Volum 3, pp. 2380-2382 ... By Miriam A. Drake


    When William Ewart introduced his Public Libraries Bill in 1849 he encountered considerable hostility from the Conservatives in the House of Commons. It was argued that the rate paying middle and upper classes would be paying for a service that would be mainly used by the working classes. One argued that the "people have too much knowledge already: it was much easier to manage them twenty years ago; the more education people get the more difficult they are to manage." Ewart was therefore forced to make several changes to his proposed legislation before Parliament agreed to pass the measure. (


  • #2
    Pierre de Coubertin - Toynbee Hall library 1887.

    The establishment is situated on Commercial street, not far from one of the Metropolitan stations by which one may travel to any other part of London. By a modest gate one penetrates into the yard surrounded by buildings made of red brick, a plain but gracious architecture, the walls of which are, above all, enlivened by vines. On the ground floor one immediately enters a drawing room, then a conference hall, several minor rooms and a dining hall. On the first floor are the bedrooms, the walls made of polished fir; but it is fitting, light and really comfortable. In another part of the complex one finds the newly installed library. (...) As I was surprised to find that one were teaching workers Latin and philosophy, someone told me: «What seems to strike them most is not always what one might think most fitting.» - And in fact, I can remember quite often having seen labourers entering the National Library at Rue Richelieu in Paris, and when I followed them I was sometimes surprised to hear of the titles they were asking for !

    --Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937)

    (Coubertin's essay on Toynbee Hall was originally published in La Reforme Sociale, 1er Septembre 1887,
    and was reproduced in his L'Education en Angleterre - Collège et Universités, 1888.)



    • #3
      Education and Library at Toynbee Hall.

      Barnett made education one of the central concerns of Toynbee's mission. Only by educating the poor would they be in a position to lift themselves out of their down-trodden situation. Barnett believed that University Extension lectures and courses would be a significant means of achieving this end and in 1884 the University Extension Society was welcomed into Toynbee Hall. In the St. Jude's Report for 1885 Barnett reported: 'The university Extension Society has this year carried on its classes in Toynbee Hall. The number of students has risen to over 2500 and a library of over 2500 has been formed'. In the early days many of his friends and supporters were optimistic about the possibilities that lay ahead. The writer of an article in the Scottish Leader commented, 'the educational side of its [Toynbee Hall's] operations has developed in a most wonderful way since the institution was established as the first centre of the London University Extension Society'. However, costs proved to be a major difficulty with Toynbee courses making a charge of £10 which was well beyond the reach of working men, who earned little more than 20 s. a week. In fact it soon became clear that many of the students were not from the working classes but came from other parts of the city.

      Squires in the slums: settlements and missions in late-Victorian Britain, p. 41.

      By Nigel Scotland