Runt of cultural family recalls its mission

The Public Library in Britain 1914-2000
November 3, 2000

In an age of secular cathedrals of taste and civilisation - such as the cinema, art galleries and museums - the public library is the derided runt of the cultural family, associated with stuffy silences, brown beanbags and disciplinarian librarians. To coincide with its 150th anniversary, Alistair Black follows on from his earlier volume on the Victorian library, bringing us up to the technological transformations of the past century.

That the library can be seen as the "cultural equivalent of the village pump" is an idea that Black takes up with enthusiasm. For him, the library is a synthesis between the past and the present, an intersection between the public sphere and the self, and an agent of "modernity". His revisionist history is "an interpretation of the chronology of history."

Scanning the 20th century, he divides his volume into five sections, each of which explores the policies and perceptions of the library through detailed statistics, lively interventions from the Mass Observation Archive, vignettes from leading librarians and their correspondence, and analysis of key government papers such as the Kenyon report and McColvin blueprint. All are tied into perennial historical issues: the aftermath of war, ideas of social-cohesion, class issues, self-betterment, rural-urban provision, funding battles and government intervention.

The overarching debate concerns the purpose of libraries: should they be arbiters of cultural taste and decency? This battle is evident throughout: in 1960, for example, when staff at the Harrogate Public Library Committee were admonished for taking it upon themselves to ban Lady Chatterley's Lover ; or when the introduction of audio-recordings and the paperback revolution raised eyebrows because they were seen to be making libraries more recreational. One contradiction libraries face is that the public perceives them as dated and out-modish, yet they try to expound a policy of advancement and act as catalysts of learning.

Black's research is thorough and most engrossing when tackling the more human aspects of library use. We learn that 100,000 books were destroyed when Coventry's central library was bombed, and that between 1939 and 1945 about 50 libraries were "destroyed or seriously damaged and around 750,000 books lost". He also shows evidence that library use increased during periods of unemployment and at crisis points. There are well-documented instances of libraries buying books relevant to local industry and thus benefiting businesses, such as carpet design in Kidderminster and coal mining in Wakefield.

Libraries turn out to be far more than a deposit of paperbacks and large-print fiction. They have seen their work as a mission (users recall near-spiritual experiences) and seem to have lent not just books but ideals. Their roles and functions have involved a deep belief in self-betterment and in the value of information societies and knowledge-based economies. This should suggest their future is safe, despite the number of books, libraries, librarians and funding falling over the past decade. But there is a dedicated band of librarians, like the late William Benson Thorne, who will fight for rights enshrined in the Public Library Act.

Black provides comprehensive notes and references to every chapter, a very useful tool to any researcher or interested reader. Whether any of them could be found on the shelves of your local library is more doubtful and the book could have benefited from a statistical survey of the whole period.

It is not so much an entertaining exploration of history, but an engaging analysis of pressures, policies and perception of the public lending library, which for Black becomes a crucible of 20th-century history. A social history of popular books would have been more fun but less informative.

Helen Davies is editorial assistant, The THES .

The Public Library in Britain 1914-2000

Author - Alistair Black
ISBN - 0 7123 4685 6
Publisher - British Library
Price - £30.00
Pages - 180

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