It is amazing to think that less than one hundred years ago, public libraries as we know them didn’t exist for the majority of people in Britain.
The idea of a library that would be open to all and would provide free access to books, newspapers and journals was a revolutionary one. When William Ewart, a Liberal MP, introduced the Public Libraries Bill in parliament in 1849 it was greeted with much hostility especially by the Conservatives who claimed that, while it would be the rate-paying middle and upper classes who would fund the system, it would be the lower classes who would benefit most. One argument was that “people have too much knowledge already: the more education people get the more difficult they are to manage.”
Fortunately not everyone agreed and, after some amendments to the bill, it finally became law in 1850. The rate that public authorities could levy was limited – and low – though, and it was only with the support of wealthy and philanthropic businessmen that many libraries could be opened.
At the beginning of the twentieth century there were still only 295 public libraries in Britain and it wasn’t until 1919, when the rate limit was abolished, that the public library could develop to its fullest potential.
Today there are central and branch libraries in every town, as well as mobile libraries serving the outlying districts and countryside. If you’re trying to lead a self-sufficient and environmentally-friendly life then get yourself down to your nearest library. If you haven’t visited for a while you may be surprised.
Gone are the days when the library was home to the academic – or the tramp who’d come in for a warm sleep!
For reference only
The main library in most towns will have a reference section, usually set apart from the lending library where study can be undertaken in peace, so if you have a problem with slugs in your allotment or you want to know how to build a cob house (from straw and mud), the reference library is the place to find out. The reference library is just what it says it is: for reference only. You can’t borrow books so you’ll need a notebook and pen to take down the information, or money for the photocopier that is usually available.
The librarian is there to help you so if you can’t find what you’re looking for, ask. And if you want a particular book the librarian may be able to order it for you.
Borrow to your heart’s content
On your first visit to the library you will need to register. For that you’ll normally have to provide some sort of proof of identity and address – a utility bill or bank statement, for example. You’ll be given a library card and the librarian will tell you how many books you’re able to borrow at one time and for how long. He’ll also provide full information about the library facilities.
If you haven’t finished the book by the time it’s due back, you can renew it either by returning to the library or visiting the library’s website. Otherwise you’ll have to pay a fine if you keep books past the date.
Especially for children
The range of books in the library will depend on its size, but it will include fiction and non-fiction, and a children’s section. Many libraries are very child-friendly and some have weekly nursery rhyme sessions for tots or story-telling events for older children. Some will run special book-themed activities during school holidays.
Not just books
As well as books your library will provide:
- a selection of the latest and classic cds, DVDs, videos and audiobooks. You may have to pay a small charge to rent these.
- free internet access although you may have to book a time slot if computers are in high demand.
- community information, usually in the form of notice-boards covering everything from adult education to council housing meetings, bird-watching to salsa dancing.
- its own reading group or will be able to put you in touch with one.
- a dating service! A few libraries even run ‘Singles Nights’.
Your rates help fund the library so why not make use of the incredible resource that it is?