Libraries of our own

Black, Alistair. “Introduction: Libraries of our own”. In The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland (vol. 3), edited by A. Black & P. Hoare. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 123-124.

An historic suspicion of the centralised state, combined with the rise of the free market and a supporting ideology hostile to extensive state intervention and friendly to self-help, meant that voluntary action remained as important an aspect of library provision in the decades immediately after 1850 as it had become in the ‘associational’ society that had emerged during the Enlightenment and early industrial revolution.

As towns and cities grew, social intercourse intensified. Equally, to counter the anonymity inherent in urban living, citizens became increasingly more ‘clubbable’. The emergence of communities of shared interest – at times, as in the case of mining communities, spatially coherent also – fed through into the establishment and continuing existence of a variety of ‘social libraries’, based on the payment of a subscription or a long-term proprietary investment. Libraries as different as the private and prestigious London Library and the relatively marginal libraries established in working men’s clubs would correspond equally to this description. Many social libraries satisfied the credentials of the pure public sphere institution theorised by the German sociologist J¨urgen Habermas in his Structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society (1989): rational, open, democratic, independent of the state and commercial interest, and supportive of the free expression of ideas and of scientific and intellectual discovery.

As publicly funded libraries developed and became more accessible (whether in the form of municipal public libraries, university libraries, national libraries or government repositories of various descriptions) social libraries relying on independent sources of income inevitably declined.However, in the pluralistic post-modern, or late-modern, world, niche cultures found room to flourish, and this has ensured the survival, albeit not permanently guaranteed, of the voluntary social library in one form or another. Library,W. H. Smith’s and, later, the Times Book Club and Boot’s Booklover’s Library tapped into the opportunities offered by a deepening commercial society. They also offered an alternative towhat some sawas the unrespectable and unhygienic service offered by public libraries. But again, as publicly funded libraries expanded, commercial library ventures found their profits squeezed and were eventually forced to withdraw from the market.

In the early part of our period, and in the context of relatively meagre public alternatives, private collecting continued to have relevance. However, as time went on, large private collections became increasingly rare, their fabric broken up and absorbed into more accessible libraries. Yet the decline in the cost of books relative to increasing incomes has once again, in recent decades, led to a renaissance of the personal library – and on a scale, moreover, far in excess of the modest household libraries of the nineteenth century.

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