Many thanks for the various comments and questions in response to previous blogs especially those asking intelligent questions such as how did the monastery’s get all those Greek texts to translate and did the Sumerians read those stone tablets on the toilet. In answer I will refer you to the disclaimer in the first post of this history where I did point out that historical accuracy has been substituted in favour of a cheap laughs. If you still do want to know the answers then at the end of this post are a few suggestions for further reading that might help.
Next week you may be delighted to know that we will move on from the history of libraries to begin looking at the real subject of the blog the many and varied ways libraries crop up in popular culture as well as a few posts about how libraries turned up unexpectedly in some famous lives. Before all of that, however this week we will conclude our quick and unreliable history of libraries with a race through 300 years of library development. You will recall we left libraries just coming out of the Dark Ages.
How the wine press and temperance paved the way for modern public libraries
What we have christened The Kept in the Dark Ages would have continued to concentrate knowledge and therefore power in the hands of the priests and the wealthy but for the creative genius of a man who spotted that there was more than one use for a wine press. Johannes Gutenberg created the world’s first printing press using movable type in the middle of the C15th using a press that evolved from the traditional wine press and created a revolution that eventually led to the modern public library as well as less welcome side effects including Reader’s Digest, the tabloid press and OK! Magazine. The printing press instantly made the reproduction of books easier and quicker than the labour intensive copying by hand, It also brought the cost of buying a book crashing down so that now you could buy one of Gutenberg’s Bibles for something like three or four years wages instead of having to sell your sister to the convent to work for nothing for the rest of her life if you wanted to buy a hand written copy. Although you didn’t get all those lavish illustrations they could always be added to the printed version afterwards provided you had another sister.
Over in England when William Caxton tired of trading wool and turned his attention to this new-fangled art of printing the printed book and reading would gradually ceased to be the preserve of the clerics and their wealthy benefactors and the foundations for the development of genuinely public libraries had been laid. Despite this momentous development nothing much happened to libraries for the next few hundred years. Books remained in monasteries until the Reformation did away with most of them and the books found their way into the houses of the wealthy and powerful. Negotiating a price for all those books wasn’t usually a problem as the transfer of knowledge as we call it now was helped by the presence of a troop of armed soldiers with a large cart who offered the monks just enough time to make it to the cover of the nearest woodland. Gradually though the books became available to a wider audience.
The growth of the universities across Europe produced some of the great academic libraries and saw the creation of the first national libraries. But the numbers with access to and a desire to use libraries was still limited to the wealthy and privileged. The working class had more important things to deal with than read another scientific treatise on salvation; like fending off scurvy, rickets, starvation and the rapacious landlord. There was though one honourable exception which is still in existence as the “oldest public library in the English Speaking world” Chetham’s Library in Manchester was established in 1653 and intended to be a collection to rival those at Oxford and Cambridge in the south. It has been in continuous use since and the idea of a northern rival to the south has once again been taken up by Government! The Library was to be for “the use of scholars and others well affected”, and the Librarian was instructed “to require nothing of any man that cometh into the Library” which wasn’t quite as free and easy as it sounded especially for your average working person in C17th Manchester. The books were not catalogued so you had to know which book you wanted or spend a whole lot of your precious scarce free time hunting through the extensive collections. It wasn’t a lot of help that they arranged them in order of size; if you didn’t know what book you wanted you probably didn’t know how big it was either. And when a catalogue was produced it was in Latin not a common language in the working class ghettos of Manchester!
The growth of the novel and leisure reading in Britain eventually created a wider market for books and booksellers quickly realised that although not everyone wanted to actually own a book then they might want to borrow one and established a series of commercial circulating libraries that offered a choice of purchase or loan. We could have called it the privatisation of libraries but we hadn’t invented publically owned ones yet! In the UK a series of literary and philosophical societies began to appear at the end of the C18th offering intellectual conversation, lectures and usually a library again for those not working 16 hours a day down a tin mine. Some of these still survive today despite the growth of public libraries and more recently the internet or perhaps because of these developments.
Eventually the growing need to provide an educated technical workforce to drive the industrial revolution led to the development of
Mechanic’s Institutes in the late C18th which were available without subscription often funded by philanthropist. As always the philanthropist’s interest were not entirely altruistic with half an eye on the need for more people with technical skills to make more things that would produce more profit and well aware that their workers would be more productive if they could be persuaded to spend their time reading and learning instead of spending a pleasant evening with their mates down the pub. The records of the establishment of the Workmen’s Library Tredegar South Wales in 1860 recorded its intention to provide “entertainment, instruction and the propagation of temperance” understandably the local publicans were not entirely happy and would have protested themselves but they were shown the error of their ways by the local wives who could also see that they would end up with a lot more housekeeping if their husbands spent their evenings and weekends improving their minds. They had obviously not read Jude the Obscure.
The Institutes provided some of the earliest libraries available to working men but once again only a certain kind of working man, and with a few exceptions certainly no working women! The problem for the rural working classes was that the nearest one was often a couple of days walk away. So you had to weigh the merits of dancing round the maypole and making hay with the local maidens, or playing that odd new game that involved kicking an inflated pig’s bladder around against a two day trip to borrow the latest treatise by Tom Paine on your half day off. This was why maypole dancing retained its popularity despite the rise of libraries and the best efforts of Oliver Cromwell and we all know what happened to that pig’s bladder lark. In urban areas the workers had easier access to the libraries but a twelve hour day plus a long walk to and from the factory six days a week left only Sundays when you can never find a library open anyway. Unsurprisingly libraries were slow to catch on for most of the working class.
It was the combined efforts of separate campaigns by The Free Library Movement and a couple of Liberal MPs William Ewart and Joseph Brotherton that led eventually to the government conceding the need to greater access to libraries in the middle of the C19th century. Not that everyone was in favour of this; the ruling Conservative Party resisted the movement claiming they were concerned by the cost of setting up libraries and not in the slightest worried by the example of Edward Edwards who was an important contributor to the Liberals’ campaign. Edwards had educated himself through the Mechanics Institutes’ libraries and as a result had become radicalised and joined the Chartists demonstrating that if you educated ordinary working people they would never again vote for a party that only represented the vested interest of landowners, mill owners and other random Gradgrinds who needed an oppressed and illiterate working class to keep them in the style to which they were just becoming accustomed. Despite this the Public Libraries Act was passed in 1850 paving the way for the public library system we know and apparently still love today even if we never actually use it ourselves being busy and finding it easier to buy the latest paperback bonk buster for twopence at any major supermarket chain or read it on our phone. It didn’t do the Liberals much good either; after 50 years of self-development in working men’s libraries and still a bit miffed at being kept out of the pub of an evening the working class went and formed their own political party that eventually kicked the Liberals into the political long grass for most of the C20th.
The first free public library created under the new law was opened in Manchester in 1852, The Act allowed councils to add a half penny to the rates to pay for libraries later increased to one penny and eventually in 1964 relevant authorities were required by law to provide comprehensive free library services. None of this funding was anything like enough to provide a decent library service which was why millionaire philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie were so important to the development of a truly national library service in the UK. It is sober to reflect that if we had started this all a bit later and needed those philanthropists now we would end up with a branch of Chelsea FC in every town in the country instead of a library. Which is presumably the thinly disguised thinking behind current government policy.
Inevitably given the ambitious vision and sweeping scope of this book, this has been a rather quick and shallow trip through the history of libraries. There are of course extensive library systems in almost all developed countries and many developing ones and alternative histories from other cultures but at the risk of confirming the impression that this is no more than an Anglo-centric history of libraries I will stop here. If it has been a bit too shallow for you then you might like to try History of Libraries in the Western World by Michael H Harris or possibly if you expect to be trapped in a lift for the next month or so The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland which runs to 3 volumes. Both are as thorough a piece of historical research as anyone could wish for and neither as far as I know sacrifices rigorous academic research in pursuit of cheap laughs. On the other hand if this history of libraries has all been a bit much to take in can I suggest the I-Spy Book of Libraries if it is still available or perhaps Charlie and Lola’s library story, But Excuse Me That is My Book, which eschews academic research for nice drawings and a target reading age of 5.