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  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: March 2008

21 - Libraries in the parish



One book is my library’: the reply of an old woman in a Yorkshire Wolds village, that the Bible was all the library she had or wished to have.

Revd H.Woodcock, Piety among the peasantry (London, 1889), 214–15

In a flurry of zealous Christian activity, Thomas Bray, amongst other achievements, brought about the founding of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) on 8 March 1699. Soon after, in 1705, a special committee for creating libraries was established with the title Trustees for Erecting Parochial Libraries and Promoting other Charitable Designs. By the time the Associates of Dr Bray was formed as a new management group, in 1729, the Trustees had established at least fifty-six parochial libraries in England and ten in Wales, each costing more than £20. Between 1753 and 1768 a further seventy parochial libraries and twelve lending libraries were founded by the Associates, though the scheme did not extend to Scotland, for which the SSPCK had been formed, also in 1699.

In its early years, the majority of the Associates’ book distribution activity focused on the needs of the Anglican clergy themselves, with piety and education as watchwords. Accordingly, books were chosen, packaged in wooden boxes and distributed to specific locations where it had been agreed that most need existed, with little or no opportunity for use by individual parishioners planned, or intended, by the Associates. Crucially, it seems that many of these nascent parochial libraries did eventually find their way into wider community use later in the century. The evidence offered by the few parish library loan records which survive suggests that overt attempts to open up use to the community and encourage public or, more specifically, parishioner access were often successfully made.