The English public library as an agency for social stability c. 1850-1919

Black, Alistair Matthew (1989) The English public library as an agency for social stability c. 1850-1919. Doctoral thesis, Polytechnic of North London.


Inaugurated by legislation in 1850 the municipal public library had by the end of the First World War become a common feature of urban life. The research and writing of public library history has been myopic; the subject has received little attention from historians working in broader fields. Inadequate methodological and theoretical assistance has been sought from those non-library historical investigations relevant to public library development. Public library history has been characterized by a tendency to chronicle. Recent work has acknowledged the importance of context; but the latter explains only 'how' and not 'why' public libraries emerged. Theories of public library history are lacking. This study presents a theory of development based on the symbiotic relationship between cultural and material pursuits. It is suggested that the Victorian, Edwardian and First World War public library aimed to help deliver social stability by diffusing humanistic culture and by assisting individual and national economic prosperity. These ostensibly divergent preoccupations achieved a high degree of compatibility within the context of the local municipal library. It was an institution which at once emphasized the importance of community and spiritual refreshment; yet 6dught to promote self-help individualism and tangible gain. Via the medium of the public library humanistic culture was seen to possess material externalities; the intention being to advance industrial capitalism whilst ameliorating its dehumanizing effects. The method employed to support this theory is to identify points of intersection between public library growth and recent debates in wider history. Attention is paid to discussions of emergent class consciousness; economic decline; middle class 'failure'; technical education; social control; the social origins of architecture; and the emergence of the professions. Underpinning the thesis is an exploration of the philosophical origins of the public library in terms of the tension between utilitarian and idealist thinking.

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