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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.

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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


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).





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