Chester Library, housed in an old motor works
Almost every UK town has a library and usually all local residents will have borrowing rights. But, in fact, free public libraries are a relatively new phenomenon, historically speaking.
Local authorities began to build them in England and Wales after the Public Libraries Act of 1850, although a few enlightened authorities (Salford, for instance) had opened free libraries earlier. Scotland had to wait another three years. Prior to this, libraries were often funded by private subscription.
These buildings were habitually associated with trends towards self-improvement and better education in the nineteenth century. Unlike other municipal buildings, they are not necessarily as imposing or as grand, but they have, especially in the post-war world, come in a wide variety of architectural styles.
This neo-Georgian architecture is typical of municipal buildings in the inter-war period (the library was built in 1938) – note the vast windows in particular. The grand ornamentation of the early century has largely disappeared: a conscious attempt on the part of civic authorities to move away from Edwardian ‘clutter’, yet retain some of the solemnity associated with council functions such as education.
Early twentieth century library
This Library opened in 1914 and so, technically, it’s not an Edwardian building. However, it still displays many of the ornate features associated with that period. The Corinthian columns and the elaborate portico stand out. The coat-of-arms is that of Islington borough council: displaying the growing power of the central state and its benevolence in providing education to its residents.
Cardiff Old Library
This is a great example of municipal commitment to ‘improving’ activities. It was built in the 1880s, at the local authority’s behest. A 1d. tax was levied on local citizens to pay for it. It’s typical of the heavily ornamented style of Victorian architecture that you’ve probably encountered elsewhere on this interactive. The inscription is actually on the underside of a window that juts out above the door – no space was wasted! It declares that this is a ‘Free Library’. The library was, however, only one part of the building’s intended function: it housed also art and science schools and a museum.
Taking it further
You may like to investigate our course Heritage, whose heritage? (A180).