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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: March 2008

5 - High seriousness: the reference and information role of the public library 1850–2000

from Part One - Enlightening the Masses: the Public Library as Concept and Reality


The role of the new public libraries which were established under the Public Library Act of 1850 and subsequent legislation was discussed at length in the debates and commissions that preceded the Act. It was clear that the new public libraries would have a role in education and cultural affairs. However, the agenda, and the means to achieve it, were not clear. Experience with earlier ‘public’ libraries, and the varied range of subscription and circulating libraries, mechanics' institute libraries, newsrooms and reading clubs, all had an influence, as did the character of the librarians appointed to run these virgin institutions. Controversies over reference versus lending use, public instruction versus leisure provision, self-help versus librarian mediation, were a feature of early public library history.

Collections of quality

An early model for the new public libraries was that of the British Museum Library and other libraries of national renown such as the university libraries of the time. Hence we see broadly custodial policies adopted whereby the ‘best’ literature was collected and made available for consultation in reading rooms. A study of the early printed catalogues (again using British Museum practice as a model) of libraries such as Manchester, Liverpool, Bradford and Sheffield shows scholastic aspirations and competence.

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