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

46 - Storehouses of knowledge: the free library movement and the birth of modern library architecture

from Part Seven - The Trade and its Tools: Librarians and Libraries in Action


The development of the free library movement throughout the country, and the erection of buildings to meet the requirements of the [Public Libraries] Act, have opened a fresh field and propounded a new problem for the architect. To some extent allied to museums and art schools, with which the library may be associated, the requirements nevertheless demand a distinct treatment, and as every town and village throughout the country is now promoting the erection of a free library, it may be of some practical value if we lay before the architectural reader the main principles that should be kept in view in the design of these buildings, and describe some that have been erected in the Metropolis and elsewhere – a few of which we have illustrated.

With these words Maurice Adams, editor of the Building News, introduced to his fellow architects a lengthy series of articles on the design, planning, heating and lighting of public libraries. The introductory remarks of 1890 will serve very well as an introduction to this chapter, which also seeks to identify a number of the key issues in the architectural evolution of the modern public library.

It is now possible to see the years from 1890 to World War I as critical to this process. The period represented both a construction boom and a coming together of librarians and architects – often initially in collision – in their efforts to evolve building forms that reconciled the practicalities of library management with the formal civic architecture demanded by society.