ublic libraries are among the most popular institutions in Britain, which is hardly surprising - where else do you get so much for free? There are 4,204 library buildings and 585 mobile libraries. On average, each of us borrows five-and-a-half books a year, making a total of over 330 million loans. However, libraries are not only about books: they also lend films and music, and play a role in the community through links with schools and colleges, adult reading schemes, reading groups and visits by authors. They act as centres where we can find information and advice on a wide range of topics; provide access to the internet (through a scheme called the People's Network); and offer IT training. Most of all, they are active in working with children, from parent and toddler sessions to holiday and homework clubs.
So why did a parliamentary select committee, in 2005, call the public libraries "a service in distress"? One reason is that adult borrowing of books from libraries is rapidly falling, by 40 per cent over the past 10 years (children's book borrowing also fell, but has recovered). Research shows that 22 per cent of adults say they have never visited their local library; another one in five have not been in the past two years. If libraries are in distress, it is because they are aware that they have an image problem and face increased competition, with books falling in price and being sold like groceries from chain stores and supermarkets. Libraries are seen as old-fashioned, dingy places where pensioners and the unemployed go to snooze and read the papers.
Miranda McKeaney, of The Reading Agency, says the difficulty that libraries face has been compared to that of the BBC. In both cases, there is a need for change, but also a need to keep hold of basic aims. From one side, the libraries are bombarded with suggestions (new functions, new buildings, re-branding as "idea stores"), while on the other a loyal core of supporters wants these much-loved institutions to remain exactly as they are. Can the libraries afford to risk losing such supporters? Miranda McKeaney is aware of the danger that they could end up trying to do too much in too many fields. After all, their purpose is to lend books to readers, yet now- adays only 9 per cent of the budget goes on books.
As part of the Love Libraries campaign, she says a consumer guide will be issued in July telling us what we can expect from our local library. One of the first things is excellent book stocks, and access to a nationwide network that allows you to borrow any book from the entire system, through interlibrary loans.
There is no doubt that in the age of the internet, iPod and DVD, libraries must change. However, it is worth recalling the vital role that libraries of all kinds have played in the intellectual life of the world. It's also worth considering the amount of effort and faith that has gone into creating the library system that we now have - through Acts of Parliament and private donations - in the belief that knowledge should be freely available to all and that, as Miranda McKearney says, a public library system is profoundly important for a democratic society.
The first libraries
There was nothing democratic about the earliest libraries. The first collections of written materials have been found in Syria where archaeologists unearthed a hoard of 2,000 clay tablets with texts in cuneiform writing dating back to around 2300 bc. The texts themselves were not very exciting, being mainly the accounting records of the royal palace, but they constituted a sort of library. Finds from more recent periods in the same region have lists of what is in the collection, which many believe are the earliest catalogues.
The first true library, accessible to scholars, was at Alexandria in Egypt, set up by the Pharaoh Ptolemy I in around 300 bc. By the time of its destruction by fire in 48 bc, it had developed into a famous centre of learning, much like a university, with a collection of as many as 500,000 papyrus rolls. Meanwhile, similar institutions had developed elsewhere in the classical world and there must have been many private collections of books (such as those found in the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum). In fact, from the time of the Emperor Augustus (who became emperor in 27 bc), public libraries were set up in Rome - the Roman writer Pliny says that Asinius Pollio opened one, "to make free to all the wisdom of all" - and books were kept in bathhouses for visitors to read.
Handwritten books were expensive because of the labour that went into making them. This was particularly true of the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages: written on calf's skin, illustrated with miniatures and bound in leather, they had to be chained to desks in the monastic library.
They would, however, be made available to visiting scholars from outside.
At first, most of these manuscripts were copied in the monasteries, in rooms called scriptoria, but by the late Middle Ages there were professional groups of scribes who copied books for sale. In 1441, the Italian banker and politician Cosimo de' Medici (Cosimo il Vecchio) got the architect Michelozzo di Bartolommeo to design a room at the Dominican convent of San Marco, in Florence, to house his personal library. Cosimo, who had collected fine books from around the world, saw the endowment as an act of piety. He stipulated that the collection should be available to everyone, making this modern Europe's first true public library.
Michelozzo's fine room - spacious, with two rows of slender columns supporting the roof - is like a temple to study and enlightenment.
During the next 100 years, two events were to have a profound effect on learning and libraries. The first was the invention of printing, which made books available in previously unimaginable quantities. The second was the Reformation, one result of which was the dissolution of monasteries in England, leading to the destruction or, at best, dispersal of the great monastic collections. The church still had a large part to play in education and scholarship, but its role would steadily diminish from now on and other agencies would gradually take over.
Hotbeds of subversion
The 18th-century brought an extension of literacy and, with it, the rise of newspapers and popular fiction. By 1700, there were already hundreds of coffee houses in London offering newspapers for their customers to read and discuss. The popular novels of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and other writers also helped to encourage reading. Richardson's bestselling novel-in-letters, Pamela (1740), the story of a servant girl's resistance to her master's attempts to seduce her, was hugely successful, going into six editions in 18 months, inspiring imitations, parodies and dramatisations, and dividing the public over the question of Pamela's behaviour (there were "Pamelists" and "anti-Pamelists" in the drawing-rooms and coffee shops). But books were expensive to buy and hard to find outside the large towns, which encouraged people to get together in reading clubs and booksellers to set up subscription libraries. At first, publishers were afraid that book-sharing would undermine their business but, in fact, by creating the habit of reading, it increased the sale of books.
The number of libraries grew rapidly in the first half of the 19th century.
There were Sunday school libraries and parish libraries, libraries run by the Chartists and other associations of working men, and lending libraries, such as the London Library, founded in 1841 with the encouragement of Thomas Carlyle, which remains one of the world's great subscription libraries, widely used by writers and scholars.
The Chartists, whose primary aim was an extension of the vote, became a focus for popular education and their groups often had small libraries for their members. One of these, Edward Edwards, a keeper in the British Museum, was among the leading campaigners for public libraries supported from the rates. He had the backing of two MPs, William Ewart and Joseph Brotherton. When the bill was debated in Parliament, there was opposition from one member who said he hadn't enjoyed reading at Oxford and couldn't see the point of it, and from others who claimed that the more educated working people were, the harder they were to control. Why did mechanics and labourers need knowledge that was not essential for their work? Too much reading would only make them dissatisfied. The utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham tended to support the view that the mass of people did not need education: knowledge, Bentham said, should serve a social function, so the proletariat should be taught useful skills, rather than be over-educated. In addition to that, economic liberals believed the provision of goods and services, such as books and libraries, should be left to the market, not subsidised by ratepayers.
At the time, these attitudes were more understandable than they seem now.
The ruling classes saw the mass of working people as a source of potential violence and anarchy. In 1848, the year in which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto - and warned that "a spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of Communism!" - there were revolutionary uprisings in France, Germany, Italy and Poland. Indeed, ever since the French Revolution of 1789, the European ruling classes had been obsessed with the notion that they were under threat from the ordinary people of their own countries, an ignorant mob bent on destruction. Many felt that only force could keep this mob at bay: political reform and education would lead to unrest and eventually revolution. As Blackwood's Magazine wrote in 1825: "Whenever the lower orders of any great state have obtained a smattering of knowledge they have generally used it to produce material ruin."
Hence the opposition from some quarters to ideas that we take largely for granted today - the democratic political reforms proposed by the Chartists; universal education; and proposals in Parliament for using the rates to fund public libraries. There was also a continuing fear among the intellectual elite that culture itself would be debased if the masses were to participate in it. In EM Forster's novel Howard's End (1910), the liberal and educated Schlegel sisters have been discussing how best to help a poor clerk, Leonard Bast, who is eager to improve himself: "Suppose a millionaire died," one of them suggests, "and desired to leave money to help such a man. How should he be helped?I Should he and those like him be given free libraries? I said 'No!' He doesn't want more books to read, but to read books rightly..."
Seeing the benefits
On the other side were those who believed strongly in the beneficial effects of education, which they were sure would extend through all society. In 1849, thanks to pressure from Ewart, Brotherton and Edwards, a select committee was finally set up to investigate the issue. In favour of libraries, it was argued they would be of use to all classes, particularly journalists, writers, students, teachers and lecturers; against, there were fears that they would provide only "sensational" literature and that, at a time when literacy was by no means universal, the many ratepayers would have to subsidise the entertainment of the few. The act that was finally passed in 1850 allowed councils to raise one halfpenny in the pound to set up libraries, and even at this low rate many councils refused for many years to implement it. However, by the second half of the century, the development of the libraries was to be encouraged by a growing belief in the need for technical education, if Britain was to compete successfully with other countries. Libraries would often have ties to technical schools and institutes. Increasingly, their utilitarian value was taken for granted.
However, not all the benefits of libraries can be quantified in this way.
Who could tell, for example, that giving a poor Scottish immigrant access to a lending library of some 40 books would help to make him one of the richest and most generous men in the US (see the Andrew Carnegie box story)? Who could have guessed what would be the end result of letting Karl Marx have a ticket to the British Library collection (see The Reading Room box story)? A free, public library is there for everyone to use, and to use creatively for any purpose. What the readers do with it escapes control, it cannot be quantified in terms of money or product or outcome. Cosimo de'
Medici thought that his library would make better Christians, Andrew Carnegie that the libraries he endowed would make better capitalists, the Victorian philanthropists that they would make better workers... All were wrong. Libraries are about access to books, not about managing reading; about exploration, not about "reading rightly".
Far left: the Bibliotheca Alexandrina opened in Alexandria in 2002, where the first true library was built by Ptolemy I and later destroyed by fire Left: an illustration of the Reading Room at the British Museum features historic figures (from far left): Jeremy Bentham, Andrew Carnegie, Pliny the Elder, Thomas Carlyle and Emperor Augustus
The Reading Room
For nearly 150 years, the greatest library in Britain was housed in the British Museum where readers could consult its contents at the desks radiating out from the centre of the circular Reading Room, opened in 1857.
The library was open to all serious scholars - in the words of Sir Anthony Panizzi, chief librarian and creator of the Reading Room: "I want a poor student to have the same means of indulging his learned curiosity... as the richest man in the kingdom." According to a handbook of 1866, the library was available to "people of any country, or shade of political or other opinions."
So it was that this great British institution became a nursery of revolutionary politics. Its chief librarian had himself arrived in Britain in 1823, as Antonio Panizzi, a political refugee from Italy. Famous users of the library included Communist theorist Karl Marx, the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, German social democrat Wilhelm Liebknect, and Russian revolutionaries Lenin and Trotsky. In the quiet of the Reading Room these often penniless refugees gathered the facts and ideas to attack the Capitalist order, and took shelter from the cold and rain - but not the London fog, because until 1879, when it became one of the first public buildings in Britain with electric light, the Reading Room had to be closed at dusk and on days when the fog was too dense to see the books.
Not all readers were revolutionary agitators, however; there were also scholars, students and writers, among them Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, Charles Darwin, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf. Until the transfer of 12 million books to the new British Library near St Pancras (opened in 1998), the domed Reading Room was an invaluable resource in the intellectual life of the country. The books were housed around the Reading Room in metal stacks in the area which is now the museum's great court.
Readers would look at the volumes of the general catalogue in the centre of the room and would write their requests on slips of paper. The books would then be delivered to their numbered seats. It was not thought practical to allow readers to go into the stacks themselves: there a danger of losing books and losing readers in the miles of shelving. Today, the shell of the Reading Room has been preserved as a permanent exhibition and monument to one of the most remarkable libraries of all time.
The life of Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) is a classic rags-to-riches story.
The son of a poor Scottish weaver, who emigrated to the US when Andrew was 13, he received no formal education, but managed, by hard work and enterprise, to set up a business and eventually create a steel plant in Pittsburgh, which became the huge Carnegie Steel Company. In 1900, he sold the business for $480 million and devoted his life to charitable work.
As a teenager in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Carnegie had benefited from being able to use a small free library belonging to a local benefactor, Colonel James Anderson. This played a key role in his education and encouraged his belief that the rich have a duty to return some of their wealth to society. Eventually, Carnegie's own charitable foundation set up 2,509 public libraries throughout the world, including 423 in England and Wales, 147 in Scotland and 90 in Ireland. His basic aim was to give others the opportunities that he had himself enjoyed and to strengthen the capitalist system that had rewarded him so well.
For Carnegie, the public library was an essential instrument of education, and education was the basis of a meritocratic society in which people could succeed because of ability, not birth. He also believed that the better educated make better citizens. The Carnegie libraries stand as monuments to this 19th-century ideal of philanthropy.