The Book People - A Very Short History of Libraries by Rosie Canning
When I was five years old I used to visit my local library. I spent many happy hours sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor discovering the magical world of books that took me on journeys to make-believe lands. As I grew older I progressed from fairy stories to teenage adventures and then to murder mysteries, romance, horror and literary fiction. Although I loved Lord of the Rings and the Narnia adventures, for some reason I couldn’t abide Science Fiction. That lasted until I went to university and discovered the intellectual worlds of Arthur C. Clarke and others. What I also remember about my childhood visits to the library were the clandestine experiences of discovering what I thought were secrets on the shelves. Books, I was sure, that had been accidentally left behind and should really have been removed. I loved peeping into the lives of other people whilst at the same time keeping a furtive eye for the Librarian who would surely discover the book I was reading should have been removed or withdrawn. Oh how I sweated at the issue desk! And I never minded the peace of the library, in fact, I hoped library staff would tell those noisy people to be quiet, it was the hallowed space, the wardrobe into other lands, a place to study, to read and to write. Libraries were my escape from a sometimes, harsh world and books my medicine, they made me well.
‘…the books were burned first by the minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from this book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the library closed forever.’
This is not a new fear as far back as 378AD, the historian Ammianus Marcellinus commented, "The libraries are closing forever, like tombs,” and as the Roman Empire fell, libraries seemed doomed to extinction.
One of the first libraries was the Great Library of Alexandria founded about 300BC. Books were not what we think of today, the library held nearly 750,000 scrolls made mostly from papyrus, but sometimes of leather and kept in pigeonholes with titles written on wooden tags. However this was not a lending library but was a public library open to those with the proper scholarly and literary qualifications.
Though the public library first appeared by the 4th century BC, the private library was more prevalent. Aristotle, for instance, amassed a large private collection. He was the first to have put together a collection of books and to have taught the kings in Egypt how to arrange a library. It was, Demetrius, Aristotle’s disciple, who suggested setting up a universal library to hold copies of all the books in the world. Thanks to the Great Library, Alexandria assumed its position as the intellectual capital of the world and provided a model for other libraries to follow. By the middle of 2BC, Rome also boasted rich library resources. Initially comprising some scattered private collections, holdings eventually expanded through the spoils of war. Even Aristotle's famed collection was among the bounty. Julius Caesar dreamed of establishing a public library in Rome, but his vision was cut short by his assassination. After Caesar's death, Asinius Pollio acquired the requisite funds to make the dream a reality. The library was divided into two sections - one for Greek and one for Latin, serving as a model for subsequent Roman libraries.
Rome had only three public libraries at the time of Augustus' death in 14AD. But libraries remained the domain of the learned: teachers, scientists, scholars. Where were the masses to go? To the imperial baths, of course! At the baths, men and women, rich and poor could take a bath, meet with friends, play ball - and read a book. Libraries were added to the baths until the 3rd century. In 350AD there were 29 libraries in Rome.
In the early 500s in Egypt, Pachomius established a monastery and insisted on literacy among his monks. This was to have a long-lasting effect and throughout the rest of the eastern empire, monastic communities emerged with small and mostly theological libraries. Even though libraries disappeared in the western empire owing to invasion, lack of funds, and lack of interest, monasticism gave rise to an explosion of learning.
As Europe emerged from the depths of darkness into the light of learning, its people began to look to the Greek and Roman artistic and literary classics for inspiration. Many aristocrats of the period were dedicated to developing their private libraries. Cosimo de Medici of the famous Florentine family established his own collection, which formed the basis of the Laurentian Library.
A lot of factors combined to create a "golden age of libraries" between 1600 and 1700: the quantity of books had gone up, as the cost had gone down, there was a renewal in the interest of classical literature and culture, nationalism was encouraging nations to build great libraries, universities were playing a more prominent role in education, and renaissance thinkers and writers were producing great works.
The beginning of the modern, free, open access libraries really got its start in the U.K. in 1847. Parliament appointed a committee, led by William Ewart, on Public Libraries to consider the necessity of establishing libraries through the nation: In 1849 their report noted the poor condition of library service, it recommended the establishment of free public libraries all over the country, and it led to the Public Libraries Act in 1850, which allowed all cities with populations exceeding 10,000 to levy taxes for the support of public libraries. It was after this that libraries began to spread throughout the nation. Another important act was the 1870 Public School Law, which increased literacy, thereby the demand for libraries, so by 1877, more than 75 cities had established free libraries, and by 1900 the number had reached 300. This finally marks the start of the public library as we know it. Also at this time, Florence Boot, married to Jesse Boot (son of John Boot 1815-1860, who was founder of Boots, the chemists) inspired by her interest in literature and the arts, founded a subscription library, the Boots Booklovers' Library.
Public libraries exist in most places in the world and are often considered an essential part of having an educated and literate population. Public libraries are distinct from research libraries, school libraries, or other special libraries and are there to serve the public's information needs, as well as offering materials for general entertainment and leisure purposes. Public libraries typically are lending libraries, allowing users to take books and other materials off the premises temporarily; they also have non-circulating reference collections. Public libraries primarily focus on popular materials such as popular fiction and movies, as well as educational and non-fiction materials of interest to the general public; computer and internet access are also often offered.
When deciding what changes to make to public libraries, local authorities are legally obliged to abide by the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. The legacy of the Act can be followed through subsequent legislation that built on and expanded the powers granted in 1850 and the 4,540 public libraries that exist in the United Kingdom in 2010 can trace their origins back to this Act. This law means that public libraries are a statutory service; councils have a legal duty to provide them. Councils must ensure that the service they provide is “comprehensive and efficient”. They also have a duty to promote the service and to encourage people to use it. The Law also makes it clear that councils cannot charge people for library facilities that make up part of their statutory provision.
What is now, generally speaking, the Public Library service grew through commercial, religious and secular libraries. For example, Cowings Library in Chipping Barnet, a commercial library that was accessible to the public, was established in 1805 and charged a rental fee for books. Later in the 19th century religious organisations and institutes also endeavoured to provide libraries:
“I may mention that the Parochial Lending Library, which has lately been disused, has been replenished with some new books and is open to any who like to avail themselves of it, at the charge of 1d per month.” (Reverend Robert Morris, Vicar of St James’s Church, Friern Barnet, 1850)
Philanthropic provision of books was a common Victorian activity. From the mid 19th century there was a rise in secular libraries. In Seymour Terrace, North Finchley, a voluntary library was opened in 1896 called The Finchley Public Library. The stock of books started with around 1,200 volumes, which expanded by March 1897 to over 5,500 volumes.
However, by the end of the 19th century, many libraries were finding it difficult to cope with demand and members of the public began to request funding from local authorities. And so local councils began to fund and build public libraries. Within the area that is now the London Borough of Barnet, there were five smaller local councils: Finchley, Friern Barnet and Hendon that were with Middlesex County Council and Barnet and East Barnet that came within Hertfordshire County Council. If we look at the list below, we can see that the 1930s were the ‘boom years’ for public library openings.
Hendon Library Dec 1929
East Finchley Oct 1938
Friern Barnet Mar 1934
Totteridge Jul 1942
Golders Green Nov 1935
Edgware Nov 1961
North Finchley Nov 1936
Child’s Hill Mar 1962
Osidge (Cat Hill) Dec 1936
Church End Nov 1964
Mill Hill Sep 1937
Burnt Oak Nov 1968
Fast forward to 2011 and public library users face the same fears as Ammianus Marcellinus back in 378AD – that the libraries are closing forever and once they are gone they will NOT be reinstated. Back in 2004, Totteridge library was closed and sold to property developers for £1.5 million.
As reported in the local Times Series, one local councillor, Cllr Robert Rams (already gaining a reputation for axing public sevices such as museums, library services and cycling grants!) said: “Maybe people could order books online and pick them up at their local supermarket.” Can you imagine trying to read a novel in a supermarket? Does Cllr Rams even use the local library service? Does he have any idea of how important it is, especially during a recession when libraries are needed and used even more? He seems to have totally undervalued the breadth of what library staff do or what the library can offer the local community:
"My two favorite things in life are libraries and bicycles. They both move people forward without wasting anything. The perfect day: riding a bike to the library." (Pete Golkin, Arlington, Virginia)
In response to planned funding cuts and library closures, the East Finchley Library Users’ Group (EFLUG), Barnet Unison and Barnet Alliance for Public Services have held a series of protests earlier this year at East Finchley and East Barnet libraries. Stalls were set up for the public to sign a ‘Save Our Libraries’ petition, which has already been signed by more than 1000 residents.
Over 10% of UK libraries are currently under threat – over 500 out of a total UK public library provision of just over 4500. Some councils are suggesting that library services can be run by volunteers. This takes no account of the professional and ethical standards to which professional librarians must adhere, including data protection. On a local level, a number of councils including Gloucestershire and Somerset are facing legal challenges because they appear to be in breach of the Public Libraries and Museums Act, as well as other laws including the Equality Act 2010. If it looks as if a council seeks to make changes to the library service that may be illegal, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Hunt, has a duty to intervene. Many people around the country have made requests for him to do so, but as yet, he has not stepped in. As a result, Alan Gibbons, an author and library campaigner who runs the Campaign for the Book, has launched a national legal challenge because he believes that national government have failed in their duty. Voices for the Library (www.voicesforthelibrary.org) are helping to collect information for the case.
What is also becoming apparent is that the ‘google generation’, lack the necessary skills for evaluating information and developing “effective search strategies”. Young students just do not read a screen in the same way as books are read, they flick from one piece of information to another not really digesting or getting to grips with the heart of the study. Their research will ultimately lack depth and future research will be seriously threatened and compromised by researchers that use basic searching tools, do not visit libraries, do not take time to investigate ideas in depth and lack the concentration to produce gold standard findings. Librarians still have theses skills, libraries still have the physical space that remains important and is where real people meet and real objects are used but as the libraries change, close and are devalued, there can be no doubt the future of humanity will be at risk:
"It is, however, not to the museum, or the lecture-room, or the drawing-school, but to the library, that we must go for the completion of our humanity." (Owen Meredith)
The thought of a world without libraries fills me with horror and leaves me in a cold, dark place. Will children of the future read everything through a screen? Will humanity forget the pleasure of opening a book, turning a page or discovering some old forgotten masterpiece? The Greenacre Project will do all it can to reverse this trend and to begin with is collecting literary books and books about the writing process to form our own Greenacre Library for which we welcome donations. Quite simply, in the words of Ray Bradbury:
"What a wonderful experience it was to be in the library basement to dash up and down the stairs reinvigorating myself with the touch and smell of books that I knew and books that I did not know until that moment."
As we go to press, more than 5,000 Barnet residents signed petitions against the closures. Their pleas fell on deaf ears. Friern Barnet, North Finchley and Hampstead Garden libraries will close. Totteridge is already closed. There is talk of the community taking over some of the libraries, the council’s idea being that the community should find ways to save the libraries itself. It is not the responsibility of the community to run libraries with untrained volunteers. The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 says a local authority which is a library authority must ‘provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons…’ Its stock of ‘books and other printed matter, and pictures, gramophone records, films and other materials’, must be ‘sufficient in number, range and quality to meet the general requirements and any special requirements both of adults and children’. If the local authority has been providing this service ANY reduction is likely to be unlawful and the statutory duties will not be adequately fulfilled. We will end this piece with Kate Salinger, councillor for Coppetts ward, who told the cabinet at the Hendon Town Hall library closures meeting, "…You are going through the motions of democracy – some of you don’t even look like you’re listening." And of course, she was right!