On the Shelf

By Paul Guffin

What Is a Library? (continued)

Picking up where we left off last week, at the start of the 19th century, there were virtually no public libraries such as we understand libraries to be today: provided from public funds and freely accessible to everyone. Only one important library in Britain, Chetham’s Library in Manchester, was fully and freely accessible to the public. There was, however, a whole network of libraries on a private or institutional basis. There were also subscription libraries, often starting out as book clubs, which charged high annual fees or required members to purchase shares in the library. Such libraries tended to focus on specific subject areas, such as biography, history, philosophy, theology, travel, etc, rather than works of fiction. Access was often restricted to members. One of these was the Library Company of Philadelphia, started in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin. From this, subscription libraries gained popularity across the colonies, and, by the 1750s, a dozen more subscription libraries had appeared in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Carolina.

Another form of library also appeared, the circulating library. They came about due to the increasing production and demand for fiction, promoted by commercial markets. They often charged subscription fees, and offered serious subject matter as well as popular novels. They were first and foremost, a business venture, profiting from lending books to the public for a fee.

The first national libraries had their origins in the royal collections of the sovereign or some other supreme body of the state. The idea (though not acted on at the time) goes back at least to 1556, when Welsh mathematician John Dee presented Queen Mary I of England a plan for the preservation of old books, manuscripts, and records — and the founding of a national library. The first true national library was founded in 1793 as part of the British Museum, which itself was a new kind of institution — national, belonging neither to the church nor the king, freely open to the public, and aiming to collect everything. In 1757, King George II granted the library the right to a copy of every book published in the country, thereby ensuring that the library would expand indefinitely. In 1856, Anthony Panizzi became Principal Librarian at the British Library, and oversaw its modernization, including its expansion of 540,000 volumes, making it the largest library in the world at the time. He also undertook the creation of a new catalog, based on the “Ninety-One Cataloguing Rules” (1841) which he devised with his assistants. Those rules served as the basis for all subsequent catalog rules of the 19th and 20th centuries CE, and are the origins of the International Standard Bibliographic Description (ISBD), first published in 2007, an providing a bibliographic description in a standard, human-readable form, especially for use in a bibliography or library catalog.

In the new nation of the United States, James Madison proposed instituting a congressional library in 1783. The Library of Congress was established on April 24, 1800, in the same legislation that transferred the seat of the federal government from Philadelphia to the new capital city of Washington. Part of the legislation appropriated $5,000 “…for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress…and for fitting up a suitable apartment for containing them…” Books were ordered from London, and the collection consisting of 740 books and 3 maps, was housed in the new Capitol. Over time, that library has grown to over 171 million items, making it one of the largest libraries in the world today. In the Library’s own words, its “…collections are universal, not limited by subject, format, or national boundary, and include research materials from all parts of the world and in more than 470 languages”.

By the mid-19th century CE, England could claim 274 subscription libraries and Scotland another 266. However, the foundation of today’s public library system in Britain was the Public Libraries Act of 1850, which gave local boroughs the power to establish free public libraries. The act passed through Parliament, as most parliamentary members felt that public libraries would provide facilities for self-improvement through books and reading for all classes, and that the greater levels of education attained would result in lower crime rates. Thus, the act allowed all cities with populations exceeding 10,000 to levy taxes for the support of public libraries. In November, 1850, “The Royal Museum & Public Library” in Salford, Greater Manchester, opened as the first unconditionally free public library in England. The library in Campfield, Manchester, opening in 1852, was the first to operate a free lending library without subscription.

(To be continued.)

In Other (old) Literary News This Week

Daniel Defoe is charged with seditious libel and put in a pillory after publishing a satirical political pamphlet, but is pelted with flowers instead of rotten fruit (July 31, 1703) • Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” (which you are probably misreading) is published in The Atlantic Monthly (August 1, 1915) • Barbara Pym appears as a guest on (the surprisingly literary) Desert Island Discs (August 1, 1978) • George R.R. Martin publishes the first novel in what would become a fairly popular series; it’s called A Game of Thrones (August 1, 1996) • Guy de Maupassant writes to Gustave Flaubert, complaining about the monotony of his life and his boring new job. Flaubert is not impressed (August 3, 1878) • Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville meet for the first time on a picnic expedition to Monument Mountain, and a beautiful friendship is born (August 5, 1850)

Source: lithub.com

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