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60th IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 21-27, 1994

The Public Library and Reading by the masses:
Historical Perspectives on the USA and Britain 1850 1900

Paul Sturges


The contribution which the public library, as a resource for popular reading, can make to the spread and strengthening of literacy amongst the masses of industrialising societies has been a constant theme in the rhetoric of library promoters and founders. However, the argument tends to be dogmatic and most evidence used is anecdotal. Historical evidence on both the progress of literacy rates an d the development of public libraries is available for the USA and Britain. These two countries were the first to establish widepread provision of public libraries of a type that gave genuine scope for them to function as centres of popular reading. In both cases libraries were set up only if local political opinion, as opposed to national planning, permitted their founding. This offers some p ossibility to show how library provision related to explicit demand, and therefore, by extension, to popular reading and literacy. A series of other elements -- the spread of schooling, increased leisure and domestic comfort across large parts of the population, mass availability of cheap newspapers, magazines and books has also to be introduced into any such model for it to offer worthwhile ability to suggest the presence of causal connections. Some provisional presentation of historical statistics associated in this way is offered as a contribution to this line of argument.


There are at least two things about the public library systems of the USA and Britain which should make them particularly interesting to students of popular reading. The first is obvious: it is the role they have had as the dominant model for public libraries worldwide. The second is less obvious, but very significant: it is the fact that for many years in their early history no community in thos e countries was obliged to set up a public library. A community did so when it felt that it was fitting to do so. Thus, in the second half of the nineteenth century, we can observe the most emulated form of public library service being developed in conditions of comparative freedom from constraint and absence of external direction. The public library of that era was a laboratory for the devel opment of ideas and practices for the provision of services to the whole community. By examining what happened we can see the ways in which local elected representatives, philanthropic members of the community, and the library staff they employed, defined what a public library could do and matched that service to what they could perceive of the needs and demands of the members of the community. A mongst other things that this can illuminate, is how far the public library functioned as an engine for the spread and strengthening of literacy amongst the masses of industrialising society. Whilst, since those early days, it has consistently been alleged by library promoters and founders that this was the public library's most significant role, it will be argued here that the library was much m ore an institution to serve the reading of a minority than one to develop the literacy of the masses.

This distinction between literacy as such, and the use of literacy, sets this essay in a context of the recent writings on the topic. A brief outline of the most significant of these writings is, therefore, required. This will be followed by some words on the legislative and other circumstances surrounding the first fifty years of British and American public libraries. Then, some key statistics o n the prevailing social and educational circumstances will be used to show the way in which high or increasing levels of literacy, schooling, leisure and domestic comfort, and the mass availability of cheap periodical publications and books, converged at this time to create circumstances conducive to the birth of a reading society.1 An unusual method of identifying the local quality of this conv ergence will then be used to identify two British case studies (Leamington Spa and Oldham) to set alongside that most classic case study of public library development, Boston, USA.

With these case studies to hand, some tentative conclusions about the true relationship of public libraries, literacy, and popular reading in the nineteenth century can be offered as a basis for further study of public library roles and functions. This historical argument should not, however, be taken as intended merely as a statement about the past. Since the policy of governments on literacy, r eading and libraries implicitly or explicitly cites precedent, then re-examination of the past can have direct messages for the policy makers. It will be suggested here, tentatively but confidently, that much policy discussion on the foundation of libraries and, in particular, their relation to literacy movements, is a mere continuation of the acceptance and repetition of a shallow orthodoxy that offers inadequate assistance to those who wish to argue a strong and convincing case for library and information institutions as an essential element of national development policy.

The Literature of Literacy Studies

The usual academic and popular attitude towards the role of literacy in history, prior to the last fifteen or twenty years, was characterised by Harvey J Graff in his seminal 1979 publication as the 'literacy myth'.2 By this he was referring to a rather uncritical tendency to associate the spread of literacy with most other aspects of the evolution of modern industrialised society as if it were a xiomatic that literacy was a prime (maybe the prime) driving force behind those changes. The historical studies of literacy on which such a sentiment was based, Graff describes as largely anecdotal with normative and progressive assumptions. Scholarly work which showed the way for empirical studies of literacy was not entirely lacking when Graff's published work began to appear. For instance, Law rence Stone's pioneering synthesis of more than two centuries of English historical statistics appeared in 1969,3 and Roger Schofield's study of the period 1750-1850 was published in 1973.4 Studies of a statistical nature, such as the work which Graff himself did on nineteenth century census data from Ontario in the early 1970s5, have multiplied in number since then, and Graff's magisterial 1986 synthesis6 effectively defines the new approach, much more effectively grounded in quantitative data, which now prevails in historical study of literacy.

Whilst work on literacy now almost invariably recognises the need for sound use of quantitative methods and takes account of the results of quantitative studies, it still takes place in the context of modernisation theories which incorporate assumptions about literacy's role in change. Thus, published studies can usually be distinguished as either challenging such assumptions, or alternatively as similating their findings within this traditional view. Graff has comparatively recently argued that the time has come for literacy studies to move beyond this point and concentrate on fresh interpretation of the empirical work.7 By this he means, amongst much else, an increase in comparative study, greater awareness of the specific historical context, a more critical conceptualisation of literac y itself, interdisciplinary approaches to understanding the meaning of literacy, a shift of emphasis from historical studies of literacy towards historical studies which encompass literacy, and finally an awareness of the relevance of literacy to policy issues in societies both developed and less-developed. To this end, he specifically calls for greater interaction between the historians of liter acy and those interested in cultural, publishing and literary topics. Whilst he does not name the historians of reading and of libraries in this statement, their work is quite clearly just as relevant, and this paper is intended as a slight, but appropriate, contribution to that interaction.

The Legislative Background

The legislative circumstances under which public libraries were created in nineteenth century Britain and the USA were on the face of it quite different, but in essence their effect was the same. In Britain, the process was regulated by a series of Acts of Parliament, the Public Library Act of 1850 and the various measures which amended it or extended the legislative provision. The nature of the 1850 Act is important because it arose from the initiative of an individual member of parliament and his allies, rather than as a measure put forward by government. The member concerned was William Ewart, a noted reformer whose successes included both legislation on educational matters and reforms of the penal system. In this case he was chiefly assisted by Edward Edwards, an employee of the Brit ish Museum Library. To overcome the difficulty of persuading a rather reluctant parliament to pass their measure, they adopted a bland and uncontroversial definition of public libraries.

Edwards said that he saw them as "embracing, first of all, libraries deriving their support from public funds, either wholly or in part; and I would further extend it to such libraries as are made accessible to the public to a greater or lesser degree."8 This deliberately failed to make it clear that it was, in fact, the accessibility of general collections of literature to the whole populace, fo r the broadest educational and cultural purposes, by which they identified a public library, rather than its source of funding. Edwards's other writings on the topic make this quite clear, as for instance when he wrote that "They [public libraries] must contain, in fair proportions, the books that are attractive to the uneducated and the half-educated, as well as those which subserve the studies and assist the pursuits of the clergyman, the merchant, the politician, and the professional scholar. They must be unrestrictedly open to every visitor. They must offer to all men, not only the practical science, the temporary excitements, and the prevalent opinions of the day, but the wisdom of preceding generations; the treasures of remote antiquity; and the hopes and the evidences of the world to come."9

The Bill which 14th August 1850 received the Royal Assent as the Public Libraries Act was a mere shell into which its promoters hoped their true vision of the public library could be introduced. The Act permitted, but did not compel, towns of more than 10,000 population to provide a public library if local ratepayers consented. The town council was then empowered to levy a very small amount of lo cal taxation to pay for the salaries of staff and the premises and upkeep of a library. This meagre tax income could not even be devoted to the purchase of books, which, it was expected, would be donated by the citizenry. Despite the inadequacy of the measure, a small but increasing number of towns and cities did adopt the Act.

The situation in the USA was more complex because of the different course which history took in the various states. It was within the responsibilities of state legislative bodies to provide the laws which would permit communities to set up public libraries. However, a significant number of communities simply took the responsibility on themselves and established tax-supported libraries without any enabling legislation. The case of Peterborough, New Hampshire, is important, for as early as 1833 it voted to devote its portion of the state bank tax to purchasing books for a newly established library.10 Indeed it has been alleged that "In most of our states, if not all, libraries have preceded library legislation. Few libraries owe their existence to municipal adoption of the state library la w."11 The case of Massachusetts illustrates this well. In 1850, the town of Wayland opened its public library, with a financial donation from President Francis Wayland of Brown University, and tax funds voluntarily provided by the citizens. Less than a year later the Massachusetts legislature passed an enabling law, introduced by the representative from Wayland.12 The communities which voted tax support for libraries, included some of the largest and most prominent cities, such as Boston, Baltimore, New York and Chicago. They also included numbers of small and obscure places, such as Clay Centre (Nebraska), Dillon (Montana), Dunkirk (New York), Grandview (Indiana), Vienna (Illinois), Marysville (Ohio), and Sandborn (Iowa), which had libraries that were kept in shops, fire stations, churc hes and other miscellaneous premises.13 By 1875 there were over one hundred tax-supported public libraries in the USA, and their number increased extremely swiftly thereafter.

Social change

So far we have shown only that it was open to communities in Britain and the USA to set up public libraries, and that given the opportunity some of them did. This does not answer the question as to why they did so, nor does it offer much clue towards answering supplementary questions such as why those particular communities, rather than others, did so. Clearly much of the answer lies in the exist ence of conditions, common to both countries, which could convince local elected representatives, philanthropic members of the community and a substantial number of the local tax-payers that a library was a worthwhile municipal investment. It will be argued here that the generally prevailing situation in terms of literacy, schooling, leisure and domestic comfort, and the book industries were the chief measurable features of such a favourable conjunction of circumstances. In this paper it will only be possible to do this in terms of national statistics for the British half of the topic. What will be shown here is that in relation to all the major indicators chosen, Britain was achieving high and increasing levels in the second half of the nineteenth century. What will not be illustrated i s the fact that the USA was likewise circumstanced, not least because the sharp regional variations within the USA make this a much more complex and demanding exercise. However, some local detail of this kind will be adduced when the example of Boston is discussed. Literacy, first of all, is clearly of the utmost relevance, even if the precise nature of that relevance is open to dispute. Britain was, by the end of the century approaching a version of that elusive ideal, the literate nation. It was certainly not the first nation to approximate to the ideal, for that is clearly something which had already occurred in one or two of the Scandinavian countries, where comparatively homogeneous populations spread in peasant communities and small towns and cities achieved literacy even when scho oling was far from universally available. Levels of literacy in Britain became extremely high across a large and fast growing population (18,000,000 in 1851 rising to 32,500,000 in 1901 for England and Wales) which at the same time was continuing to experience the traumas of mass urbanisation and industrial growth. If really accurate measurement of current rates of literacy is fraught with diffic ulty, then measuring rates from the past is notoriously even more difficult indeed.

The most commonly used sources relating to literacy in England and Wales have been the marriage registers which from 1754 spouses were required to sign. Virtually every other source is biased in some way or other, towards men rather than women, or towards certain classes of society or occupational groups. Creation and survival of records useful for this purpose has also tended to apply to certain periods or geographical locations rather than the country as a whole. Such large numbers of marriage registers for the period 1754-1839 survive that strong generalisation from them is possible, and from 1839-1914 the Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages collected the statistics from the registers and published them in his annual reports. Thus for the period with which we are concern ed there is evidence of the ability, or not, of the parties to every marriage that took place, to sign their names on the register.

The value of this evidence is, of course, open to debate. First of all, even if the ability to sign one's name is taken to be a fair indicator of basic literacy, it certainly gives no clue at all to reading ability. What is more, it is very likely that in some proportion of cases the evidence of the signature or mark does not truly indicate the individual's literacy status: literate spouses may h ave used a mark so as not to shame an illiterate partner, whilst illiterates may have acquired a mechanical ability to sign their name, perhaps just for the purposes of the ceremony. However, national rates of the ability to sign do seem to provide a good, if crude, indication of changes in general literacy. They correlate well with other more reliable, but less widely available, indicators and t heir steady improvement from 1839 onwards is free of the erratic fluctuations which might suggest they did not reveal genuine trends.

What the figures derived from this source (Table 1) show is a steady and quite swift increase in the basic literacy of the population at the age of marriage through the whole second half of the nineteenth century. This increase was such, that for both men and women the rate of ability to sign reached well over ninety percent by the end of the century. This point had been reached from rates of som ething over fifty percent for women and nearly seventy percent for men in 1850. The general trend and narrowing gender difference are swifter continuations of the trends which are observable throughout the period since 1754 during which marriage registers contain signatures. The thing that it is most important to understand about these figures is that they are not rates for the literacy of the wh ole population. In any given year, those of marriageable age, and younger, did indeed exhibit high rates of literacy than the equivalent portion of the population in previous years, but of course the population as a whole still included great numbers of people who had not achieved any kind of literacy during the earlier part of their life and who would not do so in their later life. With this and all the other reservations expressed about the literacy figures available for Britain at this time, it is still reasonable to see the period as one in which the population was in the later stages of a process of achieving some form of near universal literacy.

Woven in inextricably with the spread of literacy is, of course, the spread of schooling. This is not to argue that literacy only comes in communities with schooling, for that has clearly not always been the case, but certainly schooling of one kind or another is the engine for mass literacy. In England in excess of 30,000 schools, ranging from the great endowed and fee-paying 'public' schools th rough to small and rudimentary schools provided by parishes, charities and private proprietors (the so-called 'dame schools'), were available at the mid point of the century. The two dominant forces in this miscellaneous and uneven provision were the British and Foreign School Society (supported by the Non-Conformist Protestant sects) and the National Society for the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in England and Wales (Church of England, as the name indicates) which set up thousands of schools to educate children with an emphasis on differing religious approaches. The government had in 1833 allotted public funds to education for the first time, in the form of grants to the British and National Schools societies. By 1858, a total of 2,500,000 children we re enrolled in the private and publicly-supported schools.14

In 1870 an Elementary Education Act was passed by Parliament and it is almost invariably referred to as the Forster Act, after W. E. Forster the Minister responsible. By the provisions of this Act government took up the responsibility for providing education wherever voluntary effort was insufficient. The effect of the Act was to carry the basic educational programme into those communities too po or or too isolated to benefit from the system then in force. It extended rather than replaced the existing effort, and it is quite clear from the progress of the literacy statistics that it made no dramatic difference to the continuing rate of improvement in the years immediately after it was passed. Compulsory education was not introduced until 1880 and not until 1891 was education made, in a li mited sense, free.

To plot the progress of schooling during this period is difficult because we are not talking of a monumental state system with centralised records. Rather there was a plurality of sources of schooling, with directly-provided state education only forming an element later in the period. However, the state's interest in schooling generally, first through indirect-financing of school systems, did exp ress itself in the system of inspection of schools. Those schools providing primary education which were subject to state inspection reflected an increasing proportion of the total number of schools and the number of pupils in such schools increased enormously, especially once the state itself became a direct provider of schools. (The nature of that proportion in the early part of this period is illustrated by the year 1858, when out of the 2,500,000 pupils mentioned above, 636,000 were in government inspected schools). Records showing the numbers of pupils attending Inspected Day Schools are available from 1851 onwards and the increase in the number of their pupils is plotted in Table 2. Remembering that this merely shows the growth of a state-approved, and only partially state- provid ed sector, it does nevertheless give some indication of the progress of a standardised and approved type of schooling. Naturally a sharp rise in the number of pupils in state inspected schools can be observed after 1870, once Forster's Act made this the dominant sector. In fact between 1870 and 1900 the totals represented in these figures become the best measure of the extent of chooling in the c ountry. Just as with the progress of literacy, what we see here in the second half of the nineteenth century is the crucial phase of the process of Britain becoming a fully schooled society. Questions of the quality and effects of that schooling are too subtle and complex to be discussed here, but it will be argued that the combination of increasing literacy and schooling (whatever their inter-re lation) is of the utmost significance in creating a society ready for public library provision. There are, however, other elements to discuss.

If literacy suggests the simple ability to read and schooling suggests some grounding in concepts which might give reading meaning, then there is still the need for time to read, a place to read, and the resources to acquire reading matter. The possession of these further requirements was also becoming available in some degree or other to the masses of the British population at this time. This w as not, however, a happy or comfortable process. Since the sixteenth century the communal holding of land by peasant farmers had in England been gradually replaced by a system of proprietors farming land for the agricultural market. This process, disruptive enough in itself, was largely complete by the end of the eighteenth century, but its effects were being compounded by the effects of improved farming methods in reducing the need for agricultural labour. This latter process was to be completed by the more or less complete mechanisation of agriculture in the early twentieth century. The displaced agricultural population had largely shifted itself to the towns where its members could obtain employment in the industrial establishments which burgeoned there. As is well known from the lite rature and political writing of the nineteenth century, this all too frequently involved agonisingly hard work for long hours in unsafe and unhealthy conditions with no security ofemployment, subjection to the ravages of disease in filthy living conditions, and a consequent brutalisation of life and manners. Such conditions were not, however, the absolutely universal rule for urban life, and legi slation began to be introduced to ameliorate some of the worst conditions. Factory Acts and Acts such as that of 1847 which gave textile workers a ten hour working day, were slowly and grudgingly voted in by Parliament. In the 1860s a Saturday half holiday was added to the Sunday break more or less universally allowed to workers. Gradually a little leisure time became the norm for the urban popul ation and whole new leisure industries, (professional sports and music hall for instance), and self-help, public or charitable provision of leisure facilities (parks, galleries, social clubs, etc.) appeared to serve those freed for inexpensive enjoyment. During this same time an improvement in the economic condition of the bulk of the population provided the improved incomes from which something could be spared for more comfortable home life and for leisure pursuits. Between 1850 and 1900 average money wages increased steadily, whilst average retail prices, after some fluctuation, were lower at the end of the period than at the beginning.

The figures plotted in Table 3 do not mean that every family was better off, or that there was no poverty and misery. They do show that for those in employment there was a genuinely increasing scope for a better style of life during the period. Conditions in which people had time for more than working and sleeping, had access to light and maybe a quiet space in the home, and could afford a newspa per, maybe a secondhand book, a pamphlet, or a cheap edition of a novel, became more and more common. Not everyone who could read wanted to read, but certainly a good proportion of those who could read did wish so to do. In this they were aided by increasingly strong and expanding publishing industries.

Unfortunately we are not able to call on historical series of statistics for the book trades, and there is clearly a useful research task to be done in assembling such series from the source materials which are available. From the uneven, and sometimes anecdotal, material which has been published about nineteenth century publishing a number of significant features can be identified. Altick's path -breaking work on nineteenth century readers,15 which has still not been rendered significantly out-of-date on this topic, makes it clear that the 1850s were a crucial time in British publishing history.

In 1850 newspapers, for instance, circulated to a comparatively limited extent, in editions of a few hundred or a few thousand. They were kept expensive, at 3d or 5d (sums under 2.5p), by the imposition of a stamp tax on each copy of a newspaper issued. In 1855, after a lengthy public campaign and extensive parliamentary investigation and debate, this tax was abolished. The price of newspapers im mediately fell to 1d, or even .5d (both small fractions of 1p) and the circulation of some established daily newspapers rose to the tens of thousands (with the Daily Telegraph the highest at 200,000). Whilst this made them accessible to the pockets of workers, their content was unattractive compared with the Sunday papers, which were aimed at the masses and appeared on the one leisure day availab le to most of the population. About 6 or 7 of these attained sales in the range 50,000 to 125,000 immediately after the taxes were removed, and their sales continued to rise. Daily newspapers only made an impact on a mass readership in the 1890s, with such titles as the Daily Mail attaining a wide circulation amongst workers. The real penetration of a mass market was, however, achieved by popula r magazines, such as Tit-Bits, which began in 1897. These undemanding, and much sneered-at, compilations sold in the region of 500,000 copies each by the end of the century.

The market for books also underwent a great democratisation in the period from the 1850s until the end of the century. The book publishing industry began the period dominated by small, conservative houses essentially serving a specialised readership and ended it as an industry geared to supplying a mass market. A important episode in this transition was the successful struggle by authors, and one or two aggressive publishers, against the maintenance of high, fixed prices for books by the trade. The Booksellers' Association, founded in 1848, had become the chief defender of this commercial practice. It was defeated by a campaign supported by W E Gladstone, who, in a parliamentary debate,16 alleged that the this arrangement kept the price of books unjustifiably high with the consequence th at 90 to 95 per cent of new books had editions of five hundred copies or less. Prices of new fiction, in particular, were high because the publishers could hope to dispose of large proportions of an edition to Mudie's and other commercial circulating libraries, which favoured a three volume format priced at a total of 31s 6d (1.57p). Selling a large proportion of an edition at this price removed the trouble of having to attract purchases from individual book buyers. Aided by the free trade in books following the defeat of the Booksellers' Association in 1852, attractive discounts could be offered by booksellers to the purchaser, with consequent increases the volume of sales.

Also about this time a number of publishers reacted to the commercial stagnation brought about by the chief publishing houses' policy of high prices with revived or innovative marketing policies, such as: fiction and other works published in parts, special low price series, cheap reprints of successful books issued two to three years after the original edition, and popular series marketed at rail way travellers. All of these were priced at a fraction of the levels normal in the prestige publishing sector, a few pennies (usually 2.5p or less) for a book and one penny (a fraction of 1p) for an issue of a part-work. Technical developments also assisted the progress of this cheap publishing sector. High-speed presses were acquired by the industry to turn out very large editions of paper-bound books, using paper made cheaper by the repeal of the paper duty in 1861, and by the use of esparto grass or wood pulp as its chief constituent. The kinds of very low prices which could be charged for such books were explained in some cases by the quality of the product, which was not always merely basic, but frequently downright poor - flimsy and badly printed.

Publishing became polarised. At one extreme there were houses supplying high priced new works, usually in fairly small editions, to a market dominated by the circulating libraries. At the other extreme there were houses publishing reprints, part-works, sensational novels and the like, in editions of thousands and tens of thousands, at prices which were brought down and down during the period. Not until the end of the century was the potential purchaser who wanted a good quality, but affordable, edition of a new or recent title, well catered for. In the nineties one publishing house after another accepted this desire and discovered that editions of tens of thousands of copies of a successful new book could be sold at a price, usually 6s (30p), chosen with a larger market in mind. Reprints of such titles were issued at about half that price, and editions of non copyright-protected works were published at 3d (1.25p). By the end of the century there was established a book trade based on editions of tens and even hundreds of thousands, many of them published at prices well within the purchasing power of a large proportion of the employed population.

Libraries and the Local Community

In both Britain and the USA we can observe the citizenry at large becoming increasingly literate, receiving basic schooling, gaining regular leisure time and some disposable income, and being offered access to a considerable range of reading material at a price which could be afforded. This was at a time when local communities had, in both countries, the opportunity to set up public libraries. Ye t, despite the social change in progress, not every local community immediately chose to take advantage of this opportunity. By looking at some carefully chosen local examples of communities which did, it should be possible to show how the national circumstances outlined above could produce a local sense that a public library service was needed. This sense was invariably expressed by those who pr omoted public libraries in terms of whole-community need. It was always stressed that it was the mass of the population which would benefit from the library and that the individuals within it would become 'better' in all sorts of ways. The rhetoric of the public library movement was structured around the assertion that the populace as a whole had reached a time in its history when it was ready fo r public libraries.

Local examples suggest that, despite the rhetoric, the really important feature was the readiness of quite a small minority of the population, rather than the masses. This minority, consisting of those who had already advanced from literacy to readership, was crucial to a successful campaign for a library, and an effective library service thereafter. The evidence of this is in library membership records, which exist in some abundance, but which have been little studied. A rather superficial analysis of the membership records of Doncaster library in 1870, its first year, shows that of the 1,210 members, 8% could be called professional, 25% were tradesmen and clerks, 30% were skilled workers, 12% labourers and servants, and 25% revealed no occupation (suggesting that they were probably dep endent members of families).17 The proportion of members of the working classes here are fairly typical of those derived from a number of such lists by Kelly.18 They may seem high enough to invalidate the suggestions made here that the workers were not in general served by the libraries. However, it is their absolute numbers in relation to the overall size of the working class in the community wh ich are small. In contrast the numbers of middle class readers in relation to the size of the middle class is high. In terms of broad generalisation, the libraries served a middle class reading community, rather than the mass of working class new literates.

So as to look at the middle class reading community in towns of differing character, examples can be selected using a slightly unusual indicator. In 1840 the Post Office introduced a flat postage rate of 1d for a letter, replacing a variable system of rates which had averaged about 6d per letter. In the last year of the old system 82,000,000 items were posted, but the new system stimulated a quit e remarkable rise in correspondence, with 168,000,000 items posted in the first year. This rise continued until a total of 3,500,000,000 was reached in 1914. In an age when there was no junk mail, this correspondence consisted of letters. Whether they were personal or business, they were letters, hand-written letters, overwhelmingly self-penned by those who sent them. As such they represent a pow erful expression of well-rooted literacy in individuals, and by extension, in the nation which wrote so many. If postal figures for particular communities were available they would surely also reveal the existence of any concentrations of particularly advanced employment of literacy that might exist. Communities with this character could reasonable be regarded as those most like to offer that con centration of readership that would relate directly to public library foundation.

Figures of postal deliveries per capita which perform this function were in fact published by the Post Office relating to the year 1863, and they do show remarkable disparities between communities.19 The highest level of deliveries was, with little exception, experienced in resort towns, and the lowest, again with odd exceptions, in northern industrial towns. (Table 4) It is true the figures for the resorts included obvious distortions. The population figures used were those from the census, taken in the spring, whilst the population of such towns was swollen in the summer months with letter-receiving middle class holidaymakers. This probably explains the remarkable 103 letters per capita received in Malvern Wells, though not why it was so much higher than the main group of such towns, l ed by Leamington Spa with 57. If some sort of adjustment could be made for transient visitors, it seems most likely the resort towns would have patterns rather like communities in other ways similar, that is the county towns and cathedral towns of the south of England. Setting aside such speculations, clearly there is a distinction established between types of community on this simple postal inde x. If this distinction also separates reading towns from non-reading towns, as we have suggested above that it might, then we should ask if it also separates library-founding towns from non library-founding towns.

Table 4

Highest and lowest per capita postal deliveries, 1863, with year of library foundation.

Malvern 103 1903

Leamington Spa 57 1857

Southport 52 1876

City of London 48 1872

Brighton 48 1873

Margate 44 1923

Stamford 44 1906

Blackburn 10 1862

Wigan 9 1878

Burnley 8 1914

Bury 7 1901

Dudley 7 1884

Ashton under Lyne 6 1881

Oldham 6 1883

In fact, it does not. It has long been observed that the earliest public libraries were in a mixture of southern county and cathedral towns and northern industrial cities. The dates of library foundation in Table 6 show that the two groups of towns represented there were not distinguished from each other in the way that they were by postal deliveries. The two distinct types of community both set up public libraries during this period, and small resort towns did not do it particularly earlier than northern industrial towns. If the suggestion that the presence of a suitable community of readers is the reason why public libraries were set up is to have any credibility, then it needs to be examined by a more detailed look at both of these types of library-founding communities, at the extreme ends of the postal index. The selection of two examples, Leamington Spa, the highest (barring only Malvern), and Oldham, equal lowest with its neighbour Ashton-under-Lyne, at the very least permits the exploration of two very different cases. When looked at with an American example from Boston, Massachusetts, this promises worthwhile insights into the library-founding process.

Leamington SPA

The writer Nathaniel Hawthorne spent some time in Leamington Spa in the 1850s and characterised it thus to his American readers: "I know not whether its waters are ever tasted now-a-days; but not the less does Leamington - in pleasant Warwickshire, at the very midmost point of England, in a good hunting neighbourhood, and surrounded by country seats and castles - continue to be a resort of transi ent visitors, and the more permanent abode of a class of genteel, unoccupied, well-to-do, but not very wealthy people, such as are hardly known among ourselves. Persons who have no country-houses, and whose fortunes are inadequate to a London expenditure, find here, I suppose, a sort of town and country life in one."20 The 1851 census provides an enumeration of the town's residents, which gives s ubstance to Hawthorne's impression.21

In a population of 15723, there were 778 persons described variously as gentlemen and women, retired and pensioned, drawing their income from annuities and interest, or from land and houses. In addition there were 478 visitors. To provide domestic support for this element of the population there were 1243 female servants and 570 male, 469 maids, 230 cooks, 170 governesses, housekeepers or compani ons, and 104 nurses. The professional classes included 21 accountants and bankers, 24 architects, estate agents and civil engineers, 37 doctors and dentists, 26 lawyers, 47 clerks and 17 officials. There were also 54 clergy, and 72 teachers. The more day-to-day needs of the leisured classes were served by 397 milliners and dressmakers, 427 laundresses and washerwomen, 208 tailors and drapers, 162 shoemakers, 56 hatters, hosiers, glovers and haberdashers, 52 sempstresses and 9 stay and corsetmakers. Those employed in specifically leisure-related trades included 66 innkeepers, 64 in bookselling and allied trades, 32 workers associated with the baths, 14 artists, 6 musicians, 3 piano tuners, 6 music and printsellers, and 30 teachers of subjects such as language, music, riding and dancing. O nly one librarian was recorded, though the town did have a number of commercial circulating libraries. It is quite clear from this that Leamington was a resort town through and through: the enjoying of leisure and the provision of facilities for it were the town's raison d'etre.

Yet the rhetoric of leisure was not employed in justifying the adoption of the Public Libraries Act and the setting up of a library. At public meetings in January 1856 and the December of the same year, the talk was all of the needs of 'industrious artisans', 'the working man', 'the masses', 'the industrial classes'. The scheme for a library was seen entirely in an adult education context: "The m ore we educate the masses, the better members of society they become."22 The effectiveness of a library for this process was not universally believed, a newspaper editorial after the second meeting suggesting that: "At present there is almost an entire absence of disposition for reading amongst them [the working classes], if we are to trust to past and present appearances. - Where were the three hundred working people who signed the memorial presented to the meeting on Monday evening by Mr Hodgson. Echo answers - Where? Not a score scarcely were represented, the assembly comprising most of the leading resident gentry and tradespeople - affording another conclusive proof that the greater bulk of the industrial classes care little or nothing about the Free Library. We question much, now, w hether they ever will; and think that the benefits to be derioved from the adoption of the Public Libraries Act here will be received by a select few. It is a pity, a thousand pities, that there is such a lack of thirst for reading in the town."23

The opposite side of the case was argued by the proposer of the motion in favour of a library, Rev J Craig. He suggested that "There was a place in France where people were fond of eating frogs, and if you asked them to eat roast beef and plum pudding they might decline partaking of it; but if you laid it before them they would eat it. So it was with the appetite for reading. Give a man the books and he would engage that he would read them."24 A second speaker claimed that "It had been said that the working man had no time to read. He denied it. There were plenty of working men to be seen lounging about the streets, or in public houses, after hours of labour, who might spend their time more profitably."25 The wishful nature of this sort of assertion was attacked in letters to the local press purporting, not totally convincingly, to be from workers. "We don't want fine libraryes, us is often too tired to read, especially if we does our dooty to our masters." "Stead of fine books and fine rooms, lets have decent comfortible houses to live in." This was in a letter from 'A Laborer Man', and 'Ben's Next Door' took the same line. "Ve vorking men haint a grate deal of time for to rea de many bukes, but that un vitch all on us shud reade venhever we can, cause it be the poor man's biggest cumfort, and make us more satisfied with hour sitivation."26 Whilst the argument was far from conclusively settled, the will of the influential part of the citizenry was clear. The December meeting passed the necessary resolution, the town Local Board approved it, the Public Libraries Act was adopted and a public library was opened on March 16th 1857.

The library which Leamington provided for its citizens was not a particularly impressive institution, but seems to have been adequate in relation to need. By 1858 it had three gaslit reading rooms and a growing collection, which reached a total of about 12,000 volumes by 1886. By 1901, the collection was more like 20,000, with nearly 800 people visiting the library daily and loans each day of abo ut 200.27 In collection size, number of visits by the public and number of loans, this performance was was normal, though not exceptional, for libraries of its type. For comparative purposes, it should be noted that Cheltenham, a rather similar town, but with a population of 50,000 (about twice that of Leamington), had a collection of 28,000 and daily loans of 485, Worcester (population 45,000) had daily loans of 480 from a collection of 32,000, Colchester (population 42,000) 245 from 9,000, and Weston super Mare (20,000) 215 from 5,000.28 The Leamington library had not achieved mass use, but then the type of service provided was not actually suited to that purpose. Like its fellows, it was a middle class institution.


If Leamington manifested abundant signs of its qualities as a reading and library-founding town, Oldham was about as different as could be. Angus Bethune Reach, visiting the town as a journalist and social investigator in mid-century, described it as follows: "The whole place has a shabby underdone look. The general appearance of the operatives' houses is filthy and smouldering. Airless little ba ck streets and close nasty courts are common; pieces of dismal waste ground - all covered with wreaths of mud and piles of blackened brick and rubbish - separate the mills, which are often of small dimensions and confined crowded appearance. The shops cannot be complimented, the few hotels are no better than taverns; and altogether the place, to borrow a musical simile, seems far under concert pi tch. I observed as I walked up from the railway station, melancholy clusters of gaunt, dirty, unshorn men lounging on the pavement. These I heard were principally hatters, a vast number of whom were out of employment. Another feature of the place was the quantity of dogs of all kinds which abound - dog races and dog fights being both common among the lowest order of the inhabitants."29 Although the improved national circumstances over the period, mentioned earlier, had somewhat alleviated these conditions by the 1880s, Oldham at the time it set up its public library was still marked by poverty and poor education.

The 1881 Census reveals a population of 111,343 of whom cotton workers, at 29,149, were by far the largest single group, although there were other large industrial groups - 4010 iron and steel workers, 2700 machine workers, and 966 coalminers.30 Although the contrast between Leamington's leisure classes and Oldham's industrial workers could hardly be greater, there were certain similarities betwe en the two communities. In particular, the professional and business classes of the two towns were much of a size. Oldham had 50 clergy of various denominations, 25 lawyers and 64 law clerks, 55 doctors and dentists, 39 auctioneers and appraisers, 33 engineeers and surveyors, and 31 accountants. There were also 180 people in arts-related occupations, 28 in sport and entertainment, and 15 in liter ary and scientific employment. The changes in national and local administration since the 1850s meant that Oldham also had 65 civil servants, 62 local officials, and 441 school teachers. The town's business community included 745 commercial clerks, 239 railway officials, 162 brokers, agents and factors, 89 insurance workers, 78 travelling salesmen, and 43 bank workers. Although this is a distinct ly different middle class in various ways, its overall similarity in size to that of Leamington is striking.

Also familiar is the debate associated with the decision to set up a public library. In Oldham the process involved a successful delaying action by those who did not wish the local taxpayers to bear the cost of a library, but the arguments were similar to those used in Leamington. The town's member of parliament, WJ Fox, had spoken in favour of libraries in the debates on the 1850 Act, arguing th at "The Bill would confer a most valuable boon upon the intelligent and studious among the middle and pooorer classes."31 His advocacy did not, however, stir his constitutents into immediate action on this. In 1865 the Oldham Improvement Act granted the town council the right to levy a rate for a Library and Museum, thus effectively pre-empting the usual adoption procedure. Yet not until 4th Aug 1880 did the council make an effective resolution to use this right to actually set up a library. A Councillor Ashton put the classic case on that occasion in the following form: "He believed that the character of the working people of Oldham would be greatly improved by establishing free libraries and museums. They all knew that education, especially the education of taste had a refining influe nce and caused them to refrain to a certain extent from those habits of life which not only injured themselves but their neighbours. Such institutions would improve not only their moral character but raise their standing in society and refine their manners."32

No speaker disagreed directly with this sentiment and an editorial in one of the local newspapers suggested that the ratepayers supported the idea, but that: "The fear was that the public would lead the Council on the question. But the tide has now turned. It is for the Council to lead the public."33 As to the Council's will to do this, some cynicism was felt. "That Aldermen Yates, Beddon and War e are in earnest on the subject no one will doubt, but with the exception of these gentlemen we question whether there are half a dozen members of the council who care three straws about it.34 Subsequent progress was not swift. A committee was formed under the chairmanship of Alderman James Yates, but the first specific proposals it presented were rejected. Land was eventually purchased in 1881 and a building was completed in 1883. A librarian was appointed in 1885 and purchases of books and equipment began. A lending department was opened in 1887.

To look at the library's progress in the same way as that applied to Leamington, by the end of the century the library had a bookstock of 58,000 and an average daily issue of 570. This was, however, in relation to a population of 150,000. If discussing Leamington seems a little marginal to any debate about the relation of public libraries to the general public, Oldham provides much more obvious t erritory. It shows the lack of impact of the public library on the whole population in a way that is almost dramatic. Despite its larger bookstock, aggregate use of Oldham public library was only slightly greater than that achieved by several of the much smaller southern towns listed in the discussion of Leamington. It suggests that no more than a part of the public the library ostensibly aimed t o serve either truly wanted or appreciated what was on offer. The part of the population which did appreciate it was clearly from the middle class which the census returns show to have been so similar, in broad terms, to that of Leamington and other communities of its type.

Boston, Massachusetts

Boston presents a rather different picture, not just because it was American, but because it was a major regional capital, the home of a great university, a cultural and publishing centre, and an international port with a population of varied ethnicity and religious background. Amongst many visitors who recorded their impressions of the city, Charles Dickens had lively and striking things to say. "The city is a beautiful one, and cannot fail, I should imagine, to impress all strangers very favourably. The private dwelling houses are, for the most part, large and elegant; the shops extremely good; and the public buildings handsome. There is no man in this town, or in this State of New England, who has not a blazing fire and a meat dinner every day of his life. A flaming sword would not at tract so much attention as a beggar in the streets. A man with seven heads would be no sight at all, compared with one who couldn't read and write. There is no doubt that much of the intellectual refinement and superiority of Boston is referable to the quiet influence of the University of Cambridge [Harvard University], which is within three or four miles of the city. It was a source of inexpress ible pleasure to me to observe the almost imperceptible, but not less certain effect, wrought by this institution among the small community of Boston; and to note at every turn the humanising tastes and desires it has engendered; the affectionate friendships to which it has given rise; the amount of vanity and prejudice it has dispelled."35

Dickens' hero's welcome from polite society undoubtedly led him to gloss over some less comfortable facts about the rest of the citizens. In 1850 the population was 138,788, of whom 45% were either foreign-born or had one or more foreign-born parents. This represented an enormous rise, from 24,937 in 1800, and increase continued through the rest of the century. There was, of course, poverty and i lliteracy, and these hardships were borne disproportionately between immmigrant groups of different origins. Boston had shown an extremely strong commitment to public education since the seventeenth century. Publicly-funded schooling was available to children between 4 and 16 and in 1851 there were 11,970 in primary schools and 9,981 in grammar schools, a total of 21,951. This number represented a 77% growth over the previous 10 years and, since school-building had not kept pace, there was over-crowding of classrooms. There was also discontent with the Protestant/rationalist teaching in the schools from the Catholic Irish immigrants. Taken as a whole, however, the schooling of the Boston population was at such levels that the idea of providing a library was a natural and appropriate one.

Curiously, the original idea of a public library in Boston was promoted most vigorously and effectively by a French ventriloquist, Alexandre Vattemare, who visited the city in 1841. The idea which he had floated so enthusiastically eventually resulted in the City Council obtaining powers to set up a library from the Massachusetts state legislature in 1848. Discussions and fund-raising continued f or some time after this, but in 1851 there began a dialogue between two learned citizens, Edward Everett and George Ticknor, over the form the library might take. They agreed that, as Ticknor put it, "A free public library, if adapted to the wants of our people, would be the crowning glory of our public schools."36 Out of their exchanges came the concept which the city adopted in 1852, and they were both appointed to the new Board of Trustees. The fruit of their discussions appeared as a report which set out the principles behind a public library in the clearest and most generous terms until then available.37 Their plan provided for reference collections, periodicals and publications of specialised interest, but it also had a very clear-sighted plan for a general lending collection. Ti cknor had explained his rationale for this to Everett earlier in a most persuasive version of the idea that libraries could serve the mass of the population and develop their taste for reading.

"Now what seems to me to be wanted in Boston is, an apparatus that shall carry this taste for reading as deep as possible into society, assuming, what I believe to be true, that it can be carried deeper in our society than in any other in the world, because we are better fitted for it. To do this I would establish a library which, in its main department and purpose, should differ from all free li braries yet attempted; I mean one in which any popular books, tending to moral and intellectual improvement, should be furnished in such numbers of copies that many persons, if they desired it, could be reading the same work at the same time; in short, that not only the best books of all sorts, but the pleasant literature of the day, should be made accessible to the whole people at the only time when they care for it, ie. when it is fresh and new. I would, therefore, continue to buy additional copies of any book of this class, almost as long as they should continue to be asked for, and thus, by following the popular taste, - unless it should demand something injurious, - create a real appetite for healthy general reading. This appetite, once formed, will take care of itself."38

The library which Boston founded was, as a result of the planning and administration provided by its Trustees, uniquely fitted to serve the city's unusually literate and well-schooled masses. Indeed, by the end of the century, Boston Public Library was an institution on a scale to grace one of the world's great cities, dwarfing by far the rather humble examples chosen from Britain. When its magni ficent new building opened in 1895, decorated with specially commissioned works of art, there were seats for 900 readers and a collection of 600,000 volumes. What is more, branch libraries and reading rooms in other parts of the city carried the service out to where people lived. Yet the Boston Public Library still mainly served a reading minority rather than the whole population. Anecdotal evide nce was often used to argue the contrary. On Matthew Arnold's visit to the library in 1883, for instance, he was amazed by seeing a poor boy in the reading room. "I do not think I have been so impressed with anything else that I have seen since arriving in this country as I am now with meeting that barefooted boy in this reading room. What a tribute to democratic institutions it is to say that, i nstead of sending that boy out to wander along in the streets, they permit him to come in here and excite his youthful imagination by reading such a book as the Life of Washington."39

Table 5 Occupation types of new Boston Public Library Readers, 1868

Trades and manufactures 15%

Dealers and shopkeepers 2%

Mercantile 19%

Professional 11%

Officials 1%

Labourers 2%

Miscellaneous 13%

No occupation given (mainly women) 37%

The evidence that this was not the dominant character of the membership is to be found in a report compiled by Justin Winsor, the librarian, in 1868. This reveals the occupations of the 11,000 readers who had registered that year.40 The pattern, as shown in Table 5 is, in broad terms, familiar, and entirely similar to the figures available for public libraries in Britain. So even one of the world 's great public libraries, in a different set of national and social circumstances, confirms what has already been said about the public served by its British counterparts. The professional and business classes provided the bulk of the readership. The library was open to all, indeed it welcomed all kinds of citizens, but most of those who availed themselves of this were from the reading minority.


What both of the British cases reveal is the discrepancy between the rhetoric and reality of public library foundation. On the one hand there was a case made that public libraries would 'improve the working classes', but on the other there was the fact that they served a comparatively narrow, educated stratum of society. The public libraries which communities set up actually provided materials an d services which could only perform this function. It took time for such libraries to be accepted by the working classes, even if they were literate, but bland assertion was used to suggest the contrary. In Boston the case was put much more judiciously. The founders of the Boston Public Library saw that it was those who had the benefit of a thorough system of schooling, rather than the merely lit erate, who might appreciate the benefits of the public library. They did perceive something of the need for a critical mass of readers and those ready to be readers, before there could begin to be a whole-community role for the public library.

The statistics on national trends are important because they show the historical circumstances in which such a critical mass occurred. But it was the gelling of a critical mass of readers and potential readers in a particular community that permitted by its presence the success of a public library. In both Oldham and Leamington, very different towns and at slightly different historical periods, t hat critical mass did exist. It had two constituent parts. First there were about 1000 to 1500 financially independent and educated people and their families, and secondly there was a similar number of less prosperous, but literate and reasonably comfortably-circumstanced employees, and their families. Such a group, (or really two groups) necessarily increasing in numbers over time (particularly the latter group), was a reasonable starting point for setting up a library. The first of these two groups might, at first, more frequently patronise private library institutions themselves. Nevertheless they promoted the founding of the library (even for confused reasons). Once founded they sustained it by their acceptance of it as a desirable institution, through support in public debate and in the council chamber, by patronage and donations. Increasingly they became users of it themselves. The second group formed the immediate core of potential membership. The evidence of membership registers of the public libraries is that it was members of this group - clerks, skilled workers, more responsible servants, and their fellows - who joined libraries. What had happened was that towns had a cquired an institution, ostensibly for the whole community, which actually served only a minority, in ways defined by the practices of earlier types of library.

The use of a rhetoric alleging that public libraries will provide a means of improving the lot of the working classes is still, of course, widely employed by those seeking to promote the library idea. In its twentieth century form it suggests libraries can play a significant role in the development process in less-developed countries in various ways, including the benefits they will offer the new ly-literate inhabitants of the urban slums and rural villages. What has been shown in this essay has an implication in such twentieth century situations. That implication is that a public library service of the kind begun in Britain and the US in the nineteenth century may no more match the twentieth century need than it matched the need it was intended to, in the age in which was created. If the need is indeed to be met, a rather different institution, geared-up for service to the under-privileged, has to be provided. It is an institution which, to a large extent, still needs to be invented.


* The author gratefully acknowledges the invaluable assistance of Carolyn Pritchett, of Loughborough University, in the preparation of this paper.

1. It is important to note that whilst for convenience the term Britain is used in this paper, the statistics quoted generally refer to England and Wales only. Circumstances in Scotland and Ireland did vary considerably: Scotland was, for instance generally a much better educated country than England. The generalisations one might make about scotland would certainly vary somewhat from those of fered here in relation to England.

2. Harvey J. Graff, The literacy myth: literacy and social structure in the nineteenth century city, 1979.

3. Lawrence Stone, Literacy and education in England 1640 1900. Past and Present, 42(1969) 61 139.

4. Roger Schofield, Dimensions of illiteracy 1750 1850. Explorations in Economic History, 10(1973) 437 54.

5. Harvey J. Graff, Towards a meaning of literacy: literacy and social structure in Hamilton, Ontario. History of Education Quaterly, 12 (1972) 411 431.

Literacy and social structure in Elgin Country, Canada West. Histoire sociale/Social History, 6(1973)25 48.

6. Harvey J Graff, The legacies of literacy: continuities and contradictions in Western society and culture, 1986.

7. Harvey J Graff. The labyrinths of literacy: reflections on literacy past and present, 1987.

8. Select Committee on Public Libraries Report. 1849. Minute 10.

9. E. Edwards, Memories of libraries. 1859, Vol 1. p. 776.

10. S Ditzion, Arsenals of a democratic culture. 1947, p. 5.

11. W I Fletcher, Public libraries in America. 1894, p. 28.

12. Ditzion op. cit. p. 4.

13. D W Davies, Public libraries as cultural and social centres. 1974, pp. 52 3.

14. Newcastle Commission I, 573.

15. Richard D Altick, The English common reader. 1957.

16. Altick op. cit. 4.

17. A J Smurthwaite, An occupations list of 1870. Library History, 1 (1969) 192-4.

18. Thomas Kelly, History of public libraries in Great Britain 1845 1975, 1977, pp. 82-4.

19. Post Master General, Ninth Report, 1863.

20. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Leamington Spa'. In Our old home: a series of English sketches.

Centenary edition of the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Vol V. 1970, pp. 41-64.

21. Census 1851.

22. Leamington Advertiser Jan. 3, 1856.

23. Leamington Advertiser Dec. 16 1856.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. Royal Leamington Spa. Courier and Warwickshire Standard Jan. 5, 1856.

27. Leamington Spa Public Library, Annual Report., 1901.

28. A Cotgreave, Views and memoranda of public libraries, 1901.

29. Labour and the poor in England and Wales 1894 1851. Vol 1. 1983, p. 93.

30. Consensus 1881.

31. Quoted in Kelly op. cit. p. 26.

32. Oldham Evening Chronicle 5th Aug. 1880.

34. Oldham Standard 7th Aug. 1880.

35. Composite from passages in M. Slater, ed. Dickens on America and the Americans. 1979.

36. Ticknor to Everett, quoted in W.M. Whitehill, Boston Public Library: a centennial history. 1956, p. 23.

37. Report of the Trustees of the Public Library of the City of Boston, July 1852. Boston, 1852.

38. Ibid. p. 24.

39. Whitehill op.. cit. pp. 240-1.

40. Boston Public Library, Annual Report. 1869, Appendix XIX.