Skip to content

High Street History: Libraries

Updated Tuesday 3rd July 2007

There's almost as much to learn from outside a library looking in, as you can discover on the shelves inside.

Chester City Library Creative commons image Icon Boobelle under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license
Chester Library, housed in an old motor works

Libraries

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.

Barnet library Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University

1930s library

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.

South Library Islington Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University

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 Creative commons image Icon Mooganic via Flickr under Creative-Commons license

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.

Photo of Cardiff Old Library courtesy of mooganic . Some rights reserved

Taking it further

You may like to investigate our course Heritage, whose heritage? (A180).

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

RIP, LEA: The local education authority vanishes Creative commons image Icon SteHLiverpool under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 license article icon

Education & Development 

RIP, LEA: The local education authority vanishes

The 2016 Budget included an announcement that all local authority schools in England would be forced to become academies. It's the end of a local tradition in education, says James Williams.

Article
Radical Library Camp Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Radical Library Camp article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Radical Library Camp

Aiming to build a network of solidarity for those critical of the marketisation of libraries and commodification of information.

Article
Debate: What makes for good design in school buildings? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Deskcube | Dreamstime.com article icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

Debate: What makes for good design in school buildings?

We nearly all have contact with schools - and we mostly all have ideas about what works and what doesn't. Share your views!

Article
High Street History: Just the facts Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University article icon

History & The Arts 

High Street History: Just the facts

Learn the secrets of the past, revealed by clues on the high streets of today. For a richer version, explore our High Street History interactive.

Article
High Street History: Factories Creative commons image Icon DigiMatt under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

High Street History: Factories

Once a place of industry; now a witness to history.

Article
High Street History: Municipal buildings Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: rofantor under CC-BY-NC-ND licence article icon

History & The Arts 

High Street History: Municipal buildings

Town halls and firestations trace the rise of civic pride.

Article
Will Alsop Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Copyright article icon

History & The Arts 

Will Alsop

Can Will Alsopp teach the British to love modernism again?

Article
Mapping slave history Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team article icon

History & The Arts 

Mapping slave history

We've put locations relating to Northern England's slave past onto our map. Find out more about the people involved in the north's slave history as you move around the map.

Article
Past-Time Lover: Albert Einstein Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Neil Arnold article icon

History & The Arts 

Past-Time Lover: Albert Einstein

This article is part of a collection produced for Valentine’s Day. Who would you select for your Valentine from these iconic figures from history? 

Article