Bringing books to the people

Few people, even in the eighteenth century, could afford many books, nor did they necessarily want to keep those that they read. Yet now great numbers of books were bring written and published. One way of making these available to a wide readership was via subscription, or circulating, libraries. The earliest of these was founded in Edinburgh in 1729. Some of the first of these were associated with Non-conformist chapels. Members paid a subscription and were then allowed to borrow books from the library.

In the early part of the nineteenth century there was concern that the working-classes should be more adequately educated. (It is worth remembering that, except where required by Factory Acts) elementary education was provided only on a voluntary principle until 1870 and that many children never attended school at all.)From the 1820s Mechanics' Institutes were founded to provide evening classes and a library from which members could borrow books. The Mechanics' Institute movement was associated predominantly with Non-conformity and the Established Church followed its lead by setting up Church Institutes, again with libraries.

In 1850 an Act of Parliament made it possible for local authorities to apply a modest rate to the provision of Public Libraries. Some authorities, like Manchester, for example, were quick to do so. Others lagged far behind and only built Public Libraries in the early years of the twentieth century. A Scots philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie (1835-1918), gave huge sums of money to local authorities to enable them to provide libraries and even today many library buildings are popularly known as the Carnegie Library.

One man who took books to the people was Charles Edward Mudie (1818-1890). Mudie grew up among books. His father was a second-hand bookseller who lent books out at a penny a time. Mudie himself set up as a bookseller and publisher in 1840. In 1842 he branched out into lending books, buying quite immense numbers of new publications to cater for his borrowers. The development of the railway network meant that he could send boxes of books easily to any part of the country and branches were set up in many towns and cities, some run on Mudie's behalf by the local Church Institute or other organization. Mudie's library died out in the early years of the twentieth century when the provision of local authority public libraries rendered it superfluous.

Both W H Smith's and Boot's the Chemist provided lending libraries at one time.

Return to National Children's Book Week index page