The appearance and growth of ‘free’ local libraries funded from local taxation, which for over a century we have referred to as public libraries, resulted from the Public Libraries Act (1850), which initially applied to England and Wales. The Act was extended to Scotland and Ireland in 1853. Contributors to this section deal largely with the history of the public library in England. Developments in Wales, Scotland and Ireland receive specific attention in a later section in the volume. However, it should be stressed that many of the motives, drivers and issues of past public library development in England were to be found, to a greater or lesser extent, elsewhere in the British Isles.
Before public libraries were formally inaugurated in 1850, there had developed a patchwork of libraries of various kinds – for example, endowed libraries, ecclesiastical libraries, subscription libraries, book clubs and collections in coffee houses – that could in some ways be described as ‘public’. But these libraries normally involved some kind of payment, either directly for use of the library, or indirectly for the service, as in the case of coffee houses, to which the library was appended. Proposals for libraries free at the point of use and subsidised from the public purse appeared a number of times in the first half of the nineteenth century. The idea was raised by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) in 1826 and by the Select Committee on Enquiry into Drunkenness (1834). The idea also formed part of an unsuccessful Public Institutions Bill (1835) and featured in the deliberations of the Select Committee on Arts and Their Connection with Manufactures (1835–6).