Public libraries exist in most places in the world and are often considered to be an essential part of having a literate and educated population.

Public libraries have been going since Roman times.  The Romans made scrolls available in dry rooms for the patrons of their baths.  Only those people who could afford an education could use the libraries.  In the middle of the nineteenth century the push for truly public libraries, paid for by taxes and run by the state, gained force.

Libraries had often been started with a donation, an endowment or were bequeathed to various parishes, churches, schools or towns and these social and institutional libraries formed the basis for many academic and public library collections of today.

In the early seventeenth century many famous collegiate and town libraries were founded throughout the country.  Chetham Library in Manchester, opened in 1653, claims to be the oldest public library in the English-speaking world.

The eighteenth century saw the switch from closed parochial libraries, which frequently had books chained to the desks, to lending libraries.  Subscription libraries, both private and commercial, provided the middle and upper classes with a variety of moderate books for moderate fees.

Commercial subscription libraries began when booksellers started renting out extra copies of books in the mid-eighteenth century.  In 1790, there were estimated to be about six hundred rental and lending libraries throughout the country.  In the mid to late eighteenth century there was an explosion in novel reading.  Novels were purely for enjoyment and not for study and this marked a huge change in the pattern of reading. Reading was no longer an academic pursuit or an attempt to gain spiritual guidance.   So that by the beginning of the nineteenth century novels comprised about 20% of each libraries total collection.  They became the perfect books for subscription libraries to lend.  Books became smaller for ease of reading, much like the paperbacks of today. Reading became a social activity.  Many circulating libraries were attached to milliners and drapers shops.

Private subscription libraries functioned in much the same way as commercial lending libraries.  One of the most popular versions was a gentleman’s-only library.  Membership was restricted to the proprietors and shareholders.  You could become a shareholder by purchasing a share, which in the early days was usually one guinea.  Membership could range from a dozen to four or five hundred men.   These subscription libraries prided themselves on respectability and did not stock novels which were often frowned upon in society.

With the beginning of the Industrial Revolution there was a rise in subscription libraries intended for use by tradesmen.

By the mid-nineteenth century, England had 274 subscription libraries and Scotland 266. In 1850 the Public Libraries Act was passed and this is the foundation of our modern public library system.  This gave local boroughs the power to establish free local libraries.  This Act was the first legislative step in the creation of an enduring national institution that provides universal free access to information and literature.  In 2010, the 4,540 public libraries in the UK can trace their origins back to this Act.  Norwich claims to be the first municipality to adopt the Public Libraries Act (which allowed any municipal borough with a population of 100,000 or more to introduce a halfpenny rate to establish public libraries – although not to buy books).

Abridged from Wikipedia


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s