Monday, November 29, 2010

Public Libraries: Back to the Future


Three separate incidents in this last week stimulated some interesting thoughts on public libraries. First, UK TV covered a news article last week about a rural village, who on losing their mobile library facility, had taken over a disused old phone box and turned it into a book exchange where the villages could do precisely that, exchange their books at any time. We also wrote about Amazon’s lending function on ebooks which starts to offer a host of potential new opportunities far past the current service. Finally, on sending a card to friends who live in a small village in the peak district, we remembered their address as being a building called ‘The Reading Room.’ In the 19th century,The Reading Room’ served the community as a private library and it’s patron was the local landowner.

Today we look on the public library as a service funded and run by public funds, but that has not always been the case and philanthropy has played a major part of shaping what we now regard as a public service. The early public libraries in the UK often were very local and not freely accessible to the public. The notable exception was the Chetham Library in Manchester which opened in 1653 and claims to be the oldest public library in the English-speaking world.

It wasn’t until the turn of the 18th century that libraries moved from a closed parochial model to lending libraries. Before this time, public libraries frequently chained their books to desks. There was in fact a wide network of library provision on a private or institutional basis and subscription libraries, both private and commercial, proving the middle to upper class with a variety of books for moderate fees.The 18th century commercial subscription libraries were often created by booksellers who rented out extra copies of books. In 1790 it was estimated that there were some six hundred rental and lending libraries in the UK. Circulating libraries owners wanted to lend books as many times as they possibly could and these were often attached to the shops of milliners or drapers and served as a social meeting place as coffee shops do today. Private subscription libraries flourished with restricted membership and Booksellers often acted as librarians and received an honorarium for their pains. The Liverpool Subscription library was a gentlemen only library. In 1798, it was rebuilt with a newsroom and coffeehouseLast week there was a UK TV news article about a rural village who on losing their mobile library facility had taken over a disused old phone box and turned it into a book exchange where the villages could do precisely that exchange their books at any time. We also wrote about Amazon’s lending function on ebooks which starts to offer a host of potential opportunities. Finally, I sending a card to friends who live in a small village in the peak district we remembered their address as being a building called ‘The Reading Room.’ In the 19th century,The Reading Room’ served the community as a private library and it’s patron was the local landowner.
Today we look on the public library as a service funded and run by public funds but that has not always been the case and philanthropy has played a major part of shaping what we now regard as a public service. The early public libraries in the UK often were very local and not freely accessible to the public with the notable exception being the Chetham Library in Manchester opening in 1653 and claiming to be the oldest public library in the English-speaking world.
It wasn’t until the turn of the 18th century that libraries moved from a closed parochial model to lending libraries. Before this time, public libraries frequently chained their books to desks. There was in fact a wide network of library provision on a private or institutional basis and subscription libraries, both private and commercial, provided the middle and middle to upper class with a variety of books for moderate fees.The 18th century commercial subscription libraries were often created by booksellers who rented out extra copies of books and in 1790 it was estimated that there were some six hundred rental and lending libraries in the UK. Circulating libraries owners wanted to lend books as many times as they possibly could and these were often attached to the shops of milliners or drapers serving as a social meeting place as coffee shops do today. Private subscription libraries flourished with restricted membership. Booksellers often acted as librarians and received an honorarium for their pains. The Liverpool Subscription library was a gentlemen only library. In 1798, it was rebuilt with a newsroom and coffee-house and renamed the Athenaeum. It had an entrance fee of one guinea and annual subscription of five shillings.

The Public Libraries Act 1850 was the foundation of the modern public library system in the UK and at the time England had some 274 and Scotland, 266, subscription libraries. Norwich claims to being the first municipality to adopt the new Public Libraries Act. The Act allowed any municipal borough with a population of 100,000 or more, to introduce a halfpenny rate to establish public libraries, but not to buy books.

However, in both the UK and US private philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie, Samuel Tilden and many others provided the seed capital and the push to get many libraries started. Carnegie envisioned that libraries would "bring books and information to all people." It is estimated that he donated over $60 million to the building of over 2,811 free public library buildings in the United States, where they were often known as Carnegie libraries. In many instances collectors also donated vast book collections to these libraries.

As the 20th century evolved and private philanthropy was hit by war and recession. As a result, Public libraries became more independent and publicly funded, lending books and materials freely, but charging fines if materials are returned late or damaged.

So we return to today, where we see public spending being increasingly squeezed and public libraries often under funded and under resourced. They are clearly struggling to get to grips with the digital challenges they now face in their, infrastructure, content, lending model, community presence and funding. We may not approve of the Google scanning programme in its commercial objectives, but support it in its social ones. With the return of philanthropy and social conscience, perhaps we should rethink the role and funding of public libraries within a more open public / private mix. Why should we regard borrowing as free? We can all learn from history and although we all often only see but a fraction of the actual facts, there are clear opportunities offered which may help create new; reading rooms, book exchanges and virtual libraries, all free from the public purse, or which at least ease the current burden upon it.

Many would go on blindly demanding on the universal right to 'free' and that the funding by public funds must be a given. However, some would now suggest that this needs to be seriously questioned if we are to avoid the questionable digital position adopted by the UK PA over electronic access, the handing over of public assets to Google and the potential challenges of digital subscription/circulation libraries outside of the public control. Could Amazon or Google Editions become the new digital subscription / circulation library?

3 comments:

Nikki Oldaker said...

Wonderful article...As one of the many authors of Samuel Tilden I know from extensive research about him the reason he left millions of his estate to build the NY Public Library. As a child he was ill much of the time and books were his salvation--He scrimped and saved every penny he could just to buy a second hand book - His Aunt Polly also gifted him with many. As an adult he invested in a rare collection of books and spared no expense to obtain them.

While writing his will he bequeathed millions to create the "Tilden Trust" and had the building plans drawn up for the beautiful New York Public Library on 5th Ave. & 42nd St. He wanted to approve every last marble stone that went into the construction. I reprinted the building plans and published them in my Tilden book along with the list of rare books in the revision of "The Life of Samuel J. Tilden" written by his best friend John Bigelow who was one of the owners of the New York Post aka Evening Post.

After Tilden passed away, John Bigelow kept his promise to Tilden and ran into a roadblock in court when Tilden's greedy nephews challenged the estate to take the money for themselves. They actually won in court - but Bigelow along with Tilden's beloved sister Mary Pelton and her grand-daughter joined the lawsuit to get the money back for the library. Bigelow invested the funds wisely while the estate was being argued in court and even though the nephews won the orginal millions from the Trust they were not entitled to the new money from the investments.

It took John Bigelow, Mary Pelton and her grand-daughter from 1886 to 1905 to complete the library. It was Bigelow that also worked out the deal with the help of the Astor and Lenox private libraries combined their collections and money to complete the project. Bigelow was well into his 90's at this point, but he kept his promise to Samuel to complete Samuel's dream of a "free" public library. Tilden's will had also included 2 other libraries: one in Yonkers, where he had his farm, aka, Graystone (not Greystone) and one in New Lebanon, his hometown and burial place.

On his statue Tilden had engraved, "I Trust the People" and on his Tombstone, "I "Still" Trust the People." The American people loved him and stood by him and nearly started a 2nd Civil War during his 1876 Presidential Campaign where he lost the Presidency by one stolen electoral college vote. Tilden was also Governor of New York and known as the Great Reformer for taking down the corrupt Tammany Hall and Canal Rings. Had he known before he died that his Will would be challenged by his nephews he would have started the library well in advance of his death to prevent them from pilfering the money that he wanted to be his gift to New Yorkers - books and a beautiful place to read and borrow them.

I was saddened when I read the New York Public Library renamed the building in 5 places at every door with the name Steve Swartzman, a Library Board Member and Wall St. Real Estate Tycoon because he donated 100 million to help with restoration costs now in progress. Tilden should not be forsaken this way and his statue which stands hidden under the trees on 112th St along Riverside Dr. should be standing at the doorway of the New York Public Library in remembrance of him. A few years ago Rudi had the streets in front of the library renamed, "Bigleow Plaza"...which I agree was a wise choice because of his love for his good friend Samuel.

Thank you for writing your BLOG and recognizing Samuel Tilden for his contributions for free education for the people.

Nikki Oldaker said...

Wonderful article...As one of the many authors of Samuel Tilden I know from extensive research about him the reason he left millions of his estate to build the NY Public Library. As a child he was ill much of the time and books were his salvation--He scrimped and saved every penny he could just to buy a second hand book - His Aunt Polly also gifted him with many. As an adult he invested in a rare collection of books and spared no expense to obtain them.

While writing his will he bequeathed millions to create the "Tilden Trust" and had the building plans drawn up for the beautiful New York Public Library on 5th Ave. & 42nd St. He wanted to approve every last marble stone that went into the construction. I reprinted the building plans and published them in my Tilden book along with the list of rare books in the revision of "The Life of Samuel J. Tilden" written by his best friend John Bigelow who was one of the owners of the New York Post aka Evening Post.

After Tilden passed away, John Bigelow kept his promise to Tilden and ran into a roadblock in court when Tilden's greedy nephews challenged the estate to take the money for themselves. They actually won in court - but Bigelow along with Tilden's beloved sister Mary Pelton and her grand-daughter joined the lawsuit to get the money back for the library. Bigelow invested the funds wisely while the estate was being argued in court and even though the nephews won the orginal millions from the Trust they were not entitled to the new money from the investments.

It took John Bigelow, Mary Pelton and her grand-daughter from 1886 to 1905 to complete the library. It was Bigelow that also worked out the deal with the help of the Astor and Lenox private libraries combined their collections and money to complete the project. Bigelow was well into his 90's at this point, but he kept his promise to Samuel to complete Samuel's dream of a "free" public library. Tilden's will had also included 2 other libraries: one in Yonkers, where he had his farm, aka, Graystone (not Greystone) and one in New Lebanon, his hometown and burial place.

On his statue Tilden had engraved, "I Trust the People" and on his Tombstone, "I "Still" Trust the People." The American people loved him and stood by him and nearly started a 2nd Civil War during his 1876 Presidential Campaign where he lost the Presidency by one stolen electoral college vote. Tilden was also Governor of New York and known as the Great Reformer for taking down the corrupt Tammany Hall and Canal Rings. Had he known before he died that his Will would be challenged by his nephews he would have started the library well in advance of his death to prevent them from pilfering the money that he wanted to be his gift to New Yorkers - books and a beautiful place to read and borrow them.

I was saddened when I read the New York Public Library renamed the building in 5 places at every door with the name Steve Swartzman, a Library Board Member and Wall St. Real Estate Tycoon because he donated 100 million to help with restoration costs now in progress. Tilden should not be forsaken this way and his statue which stands hidden under the trees on 112th St along Riverside Dr. should be standing at the doorway of the New York Public Library in remembrance of him. A few years ago Rudi had the streets in front of the library renamed, "Bigleow Plaza"...which I agree was a wise choice because of his love for his good friend Samuel.

Thank you for writing your BLOG and recognizing Samuel Tilden for his contributions for free education for the people.

vishal arora said...
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