Public libraries have existed for a comparatively short space of time in terms of human history. In the 21st century it is difficult to conceive of any large community in the developed world that does not have at least one public library, yet this was the case for the majority of the citizens of Victorian Britain. The network that currently exists in the UK owes its existence to a number of individuals who led the way either by altruistic provision of a library for their local community, or through their campaigning for a national network through parliament. As Black suggests, ‘Proposals for a truly free library service did not appear overnight: they emerged on the back of a healthy tradition of independent library provision made by a diverse range of social, political and educational institutions’ (Black, 1996, 26).
This chapter will discuss the antecedents of public libraries, the history of the public library movement in the UK, the progression towards the 1850 Act, and how the resultant system of public libraries developed into the 20th century.
The early antecedents
The origin of public libraries, using this term to describe libraries freely open to members of the public to consult the materials within, can be traced back long before the 1850 Act of Parliament that established the principle in law. The publishing revolution brought about by Johannes Gutenberg and his development of movable type took the production of books into a new era. Although books were still relatively expensive items well into the 19th century, the ability to mass produce texts meant that they were more readily available for purchase by benefactors or groups who wished to create libraries for their local communities. As Kelly has discussed, the term public library had been used widely from the 17th century to refer to libraries open to the public that had been endowed by such benefactors (Kelly, 1977, 4).
The first public library, as in a library freely accessible to the general public without restrictions, is commonly attributed to the library set up in the Free Grammar School in Coventry in 1601, which existed until 1913–14 (Minto, 1932, 22). Subsequent libraries were created in Norwich (1608), Bristol (1615), Leicester (1632) and Manchester – the famous Chetham Library in 1653 (Murison, 1971, 19).