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Running Head: Footsteps

First Footsteps of Public Libraries

Maura Walsh
Emporia State University, SLIM­OR8
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A short summary of the first western libraries that granted access to their collections in

a meaningful way to ordinary people: what might be termed the true underpinnings of

our modern public libraries and how they helped form the ethos of Ranganathan’s Five

Laws of Library Science as well as our own attitudes about why and how libraries

should exist. The best and most obvious answer is to make books available; and through

books, knowledge.
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Libraries have long dealt with dramatic change including burnings and

buildings both real and mythical (Battles, 2003). Throughout history there have been

libraries that existed for the edification of the few, a chosen segment of society; or to

create a record or even rewrite a record. Nevertheless, libraries have endured some 5000

years because the principles and values they maintain are as relevant today as they have

always been. Libraries are a place for the intellectual development of society

(Scrogham, 2006, p. 8). Books, in whatever form, are the raison de’ être of the library.

The first three of Raganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science illustrate this: Books Are

for Use, Books Are for All, and Every Book its Reader. (Rubin, 2004, p.306-7).

The Library of Congress processes about 7,000 new books a day (Battles, 2003,

disc1), but the beginnings of what we consider a normal library are far more modest.

Although countless libraries had existed in various incarnations for thousands of years,

the 17th and 18th century saw the creation of some new categories that would in turn lead

to the development of the public libraries that we are familiar with in our modern

societies. There were three kinds that developed principally in Britain and were either

founded for the general public or quickly became accessible to those that wished: the

endowment library, the subscription library and the circulating library. They all

contributed in some way to the footing that would inspire Raganathan’s laws.

On November 23rd, 1741 the Leadhills Library was founded under the name of

Leadhills Reading Society (Crawford, 1997, p. 539). It was a subscription library for a
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small lead mining village in Scotland. The initial members included company clerks and

smelters as well as other villagers and it enjoyed the approval of the mining company.

Members had to pay an initial subscription and then a quarterly membership due. These

funds were used to buy books. Most books were lent monthly. Every month all the

books had to be returned and then members were allowed to choose a new book in strict

order of seniority. There were book inspectors who could go to the home of any

member and demand to inspect the books currently in his possession (Crawford, 1997).

This society was a direct result of Scottish Enlightenment and its purpose was “mutual

improvement” (Crawford, 1997, p.545). Interestingly enough, this was the same stock

that would later give birth to Andrew Carnegie who went on to build over 2,000

libraries (Rubin 2004, p. 290).

The Leeds Library, founded in 1768in a town of 15,000, was also a subscription

library. Its founding members included 101 men and four women. They wanted to have

a greater understanding of what was going on in the world and advance their knowledge

(Cox, 1995). This library continued to grow until the membership reached 500 members

in 1813. At this point they decided to limit the membership to 500. Two remarkable

things happened that ensured that the library continued until today. The first was that the

members chose to build a special building to house the library in the center of the town.

It was opened in 1808.

Because they fortuitously chose property that increased in value due to its

location, and because they built the library proper on the second floor while renting the

ground floor to merchants, they ensured an income that continues to provide monies
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that can be used to buy new books. The second farsighted decision was that books could

not be sold. This has meant that their collection has grown in value even though there

have been occasional exceptions made to the latter rule in order to raise funds and to

sometimes rent books that were in high demand instead of buying them outright. This

library has always welcomed use by “serious enquirers” including James Boswell in

1779 (Cox, 1997, p. 12 and 16).

Another type of library began around the same time, circa 1740: the circulating

library. These were quite popular with readers who were interested in the popular books

of their time. They operated by charging a yearly fee which entitled the members to take

out one book at a time for a guinea a year, or for two guineas they could have as many

as they liked (Glasgow, 2002, p. 421). They seem to have operated like Netflix does

today. They were also much criticized for allowing young women to occupy their time

with the frivolous pursuit of reading romances, and indeed many of their subscribers

were women. In fact, it spurred a great interest in reading and consequently writing in

women. Perhaps the best known of all was operated between 1842 and 1894 by Charles

E. Mudie (Landow, 1974). (See figure 1.)

In addition to private subscribers, Mudie’s also proportioned books to hire for

libraries such as Leeds that preferred to obtain copies of popular books for their

members instead of buying them outright. These circulating libraries also had a huge

influence on the publishing houses and were instrumental in the creation of the three-

decker novel. It was thought that getting a work on the Mudie list was more important

for its success than the critical reviews. It became the equivalent to today’s best-seller
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list which increased his own power and created a market for the book (Landow, 1974).

1841 saw the birth of the London Library that catered to “the professional man

of letters and the so-called ‘general reader’” (Glasgow, 2002, p. 474). It began as a

subscription library for lending but soon expanded to include a reference department. It

also began to acquire special collections both through endowment and outright

purchase. As it grew it became the premier library for many great scholars and writers

with more and more members and books. It became an exceptional and significant

institution. This is another example of a library that continues today as it was founded

with a “declared policy …to keep the subscriptions as low as possible so as to make its

resources available to those of modest means” (Glasgow, 2002, p. 477). Interestingly

enough it was founded at about the same time as the Boston Public Library (Rubin,

2006, p. 285), another emblematic and influential library.

One more library that was noteworthy in the development of public libraries was

Bootle’s Public Library outside of Liverpool. It was begun in 1884, aided by a generous

endowment of 1,530 books from Dr. R. Tudor (Glasgow, 1998, p. 235) and was open to

all rate payers over 15 years old. It, too, had a specially constructed building which

remained a source of great civic pride until the amalgamation of Bootle into Sefton in

1974 (Glasgow, 1998, p. 237). Throughout its history it has provided services to all

levels of society and been a tremendous resource to the town, for example in hard times

of high unemployment (Glasgow, 1998, p. 234). The librarians have also been pioneers

in meeting the needs of their patrons with diverse programs and innovations in the

physical plant. Bootle was one of the first libraries to have a special children’s program
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and area (Glasgow, 1998, p. 236).

These examples show how the development of libraries in our society has gone

hand in hand with an ethos of access to books and information. It is important to us that

books be used and that every reader has books and that books have readers, to

paraphrase Raganathan. Indeed, we cannot imagine a world without our public and

academic libraries and have come to take a lot of what they offer for granted. We should

perhaps pause to consider that we need books and libraries more than ever before.

It is easy to get caught up in the novelties of modern technologies and

information systems. While we should embrace them and take advantage of them, we

should also recognize that books are still the greatest repositories of knowledge. A good

example of this is the recovery of nearly 2,000 papyrus scrolls in the Villa dei Papiri

near Naples that were buried by the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 BC. Multispectral

imaging is making it possible to use light to decipher the contents of the badly burned

scrolls (Battles, 2003, disc 2). But it is the contents themselves that will have the

intrinsic value.

We are lucky that we now have the benefit of libraries that give us such free

access to great knowledge and that they are staffed by librarians poised to aid us in

countless ways. One of the core values that we celebrate in today’s libraries, inclusion,

had its roots in places like Leadhill where the working class were members. Inclusion

was also demonstrated in Leeds and through Mudie where books were made available

to women. In Bootle young people and later children were given not only access but

special help.
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Libraries are not businesses and should not be asked to account for their

activities as if they were. However, society must be willing to make sacrifices to help

sustain them and in all the cases sited here, save Mudie and the circulating libraries, this

was a common thread. Libraries promote the expansion of knowledge, which can be

invaluable and should be cultivated without putting a price tag on it or forcing it to

conform to a business model.

Neither do we need to bury our heads in the sand and ignore developments in

other aspects of information science. But books should be put first and library patrons

should be able to go to their libraries to share in the “mutual improvement” that was the

basis for the Leadhill Library. People need to have a greater understanding of what is

going on in the world and at the same time be able to enjoy popular writing as a form of

escapism that Mudie was so well able to supply. Books are instruments of great pleasure

and libraries need to protect them and provide them to the greater public. We need

books to use and books for everyone to be sure; but principally books and libraries to

take pride in.
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Figure 1
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Battles, Matthew. (2003). Library: An Unquiet History. Books on Tape for W.W.

Norton and Co, Inc.

Crawford, John C. (1997). Leadhills Library and a wider world. Library Review, 4(8),


Cox, Dennis. (1995). The Leeds Library. Library Review, 44 (3), 12-16.

Cronin, Blaise. (2003). Pulp Friction. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Glasgow, Eric. (1998). Bootle’s first public library. Library Review, 47(4), 233-237.

_______. (2002). Circulating libraries. Library Review, 51(8), 420-423.

_______. (2002). The story of the London Library. Library Review, 51(9), 474-477.

Landow, George P.Mudie's Select Library and the Form of Victorian Fiction Retrieved

from 07/04/07 from

McMenemy, David. (2007). Ranganathan’s relevance in the 21st century. Library

Review, 56(2), 97-101.

Rubin, Richard E. (2004). Foundations of Library and Information Science. New York:

Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.

Scrogham, Ron E. (2006). The American public library and its fragile future. New

Library World, 107 (1/2), 7-15.