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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."

ISC 20. Public Libraries and the Working Classes

by John Pateman

"However often today's literary scholars repeat the mantra of race, class, and gender, they clearly have a problem with class. A search by subject of the on-line MLA International Bibliography for 1991-2000 produces 13,820 hits for "women", 4,539 for "gender", 1,826 for "race", "710" for post-colonial, and only 136 for "working class". The MLA Directory of Periodicals lists no academic or critical journals anywhere in the world devoted to proletarian literature, and the subject is very rarely taught in universities" (Rose, 2002)

There is also a dearth of research into the use - and non-use - of public libraries by working class people. This is part of a general trend to dismiss class as not being relevant. In social history, for example, class was a dominant issue between 1963 (when EP Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class was published) and 1983 (when Languages of Class by Steadman Jackson was published). But today it is no longer considered an important issue, despite recent research which suggests that social class is still the key determinant of life chances, from as young as 22 months.

In this article I will examine the evidence regarding the use of public libraries by the working class from the mid-nineteenth century until the Second World War. I will suggest that public libraries were used extensively by some sections of the working class (autodidacts) but that public library use by working class people was never a mass activity. In my next article I will consider the evidence regarding the use of public libraries by working class people today, and what can be done to increase that use.

In his landmark book, The Intellectual life of the British Working Classes , Jonathan Rose traces the rise and decline of the British autodidact from the pre-industrial era to the twentieth century. Using innovative research techniques and a vast range of unexpected sources such as worker's memoirs, social surveys and library registers, Rose shows which books people read, how and why they educated themselves, and what they knew. In the process he shines a bold new light on working class politics, ideology, popular culture and the life of the mind.

Rose also reveals that public libraries played a very minor role in the intellectual life of the British working class. In 464 pages of well-researched text, public libraries are only referred to on 48 occasions. Libraries are not central to Rose's arguments - they are used mostly to illustrate case studies of autodidacts who used public libraries for self improvement. Unlike the miners' libraries and the Workers Education Association, public libraries do not merit their own chapter.

Public libraries were marginal, peripheral or irrelevant to the needs of working class people. They do not deserve their reputation as "street corner universities". The common assumption - which has become an enduring myth - is that public libraries were established to provide informal education for working people. The reality is that they were set up and run by the Victorian establishment to control the reading habits and idle time of the "deserving poor".

Well before Lord Brougham and George Birkbeck established the "first" Mechanic's Institute in 1824, the working classes were organising their own. They also organised reading rooms and adult schools, largely as an alternative to the Mechanic's Institutes, founded and governed by paternalistic middle class reformers, where religious and political controversy was usually barred and the premises could be uncomfortably genteel: "Working men do not like to be treated like children, to have the books they shall read chosen for them".

An example of this was the Lord Street Working Men's Reading Room in Carlisle. At first Lord Street attracted crowds to its library and classes, but as it assumed the trappings of a conventional Mechanic's Institute, it was deserted by the working classes.

Albert Mansbride (founder of the Workers Education Association) realised that the Mechanics Institutes had failed because they "were largely the result of philanthropic effort, set on foot by some local magnate.rather than upon the initiative of the mechanics themselves".

Working class libraries - owned and controlled by working class people - existed long before the advent of public libraries in the mid nineteenth century. The Leadhills Reading Society (founded 1741 and in use until about 1940), the Wanlockhead Miners' Library (founded 1756), and the Westerkirk Library (founded 1792) were the first working class libraries in Britain.

Craftsmen in Lowlands Scotland enjoyed particularly high literacy rates between 1640 and 1770. These groups patronised one of the first true public libraries in the world, the Innerpeffray Library in Perthshire near Crieff. There was also a large measure of working class participation in the East Lothian Itinerating Libraries, founded in 1817.

Working class libraries were also organised in working men's clubs and co-operative societies. Although the Working Men's Club and Institute Union was primarily a social organisation, it also made a contribution to mutual education. Nearly all working men's clubs had lending libraries. By 1903 there were about 900 clubs with 321,000 members. Five hundred of those clubs had libraries with a total of 187,000 volumes

Co-operative Societies also had libraries. In the 1870s and 1880s there were actually more Co-operative libraries than public libraries nationwide. The Royal Arsenal Co-operative society in Woolwich opened a library in 1879, twenty-two years before any municipal library service began.

Reading aloud in pubs and on street corners was also very popular. All these influences combined to produce a shared literary culture in which books were practically treated as public property, before public libraries reached most of the country. Knowledge Chartists such as William Lovell made intellectual freedom their first political priority, calling for adult education programs and public libraries governed by the workers themselves.

Working people developed their own libraries until the late nineteenth century expansion of public libraries. According to a 1918 parliamentary enquiry "not a single municipally maintained public library is to be found in the central Glamorgan block of the coalfield". Miner's libraries filled that vacuum. In areas where public library services were slow to penetrate, notably the coal valleys of South Wales, miners made exceptional efforts to support their own libraries up to the mid-twentieth century. One Yorkshire coal town had no public library until 1925, and no full time librarian until 1942.

When public libraries were established, they were used by some working class people. But this was never a mass activity. Working class people who used libraries were the exception rather than the rule. Public libraries appealed, in particular, to working class autodidacts, whose mission statement was to be more than passive consumers of literature, to be active thinkers and writers.

Autodidacts used public libraries extensively in the years leading up to the Great War, for a number of reasons: the proliferation of public libraries, the high tide of the Victorian ethic of mutual improvement, and the lack of other distractions (cinema, radio, television) were all contributing factors.

Frank Argent (b.1899), son of a Camberwell labourer, took advantage of the public library and early Penguins. Harry Blacker (b.1910), the son of a Russian immigrant cabinet maker, had access to a good local reference library and "a wonderful selection of books and magazines". Ronald Goldman (b.1922), the son of a Manchester hat maker, acquired an insatiable appetite for reading from his senior school, the public library, evening classes and WEA courses.

Jack Jones (b. 1884) was book buyer for the Blaengarw Miners' Institute Library in 1923 when he discovered the great peace of the Cardiff Central Library: "I'd like to do a year's reading in the quiet of this room", he told a librarian, who guided his reading, and the library became "my university".

But not all working class public library users had such positive experiences. Joseph Stamper (b.1886), an ironmoulder's son, was the author of two books. Later, while working at a steel foundry, he went to the public library to ask permission to borrow, for study purposes, three non-fiction books at a time (the usual limit was one). The Chief librarian was sceptical "Where is the need for a steel foundry? Thinking to sway him to granting the privilege, Stamper told the librarian that he'd had two books published. Stamper recalled "It was a false step, I saw his manner harden, accusation swam into his severe eyes. I was an offender against the unwritten law, I had no right to have books published, I was not a member of the book writing class. He closed the interview."

In turn of the century Bolton, Alice Foley (b. 1891) was delegated to borrow books from the public library for her entire family. After a long trek in clattering clogs, she had to confront enormous catalogues and equally intimidating librarians. At Whitechapel public library there was much conversation and some rowdiness, in spite of a stern librarian. As late as 1937 a Workers Education Association adult student had to tackle the town Library Committee for banning Shaw's Black Girl.

The attitude of librarians and library committees was not the only barrier to working class use of public libraries. The stock did not always meet their needs either. Closed stack public libraries had been a serious barrier to adventurous reading. Even where librarians encouraged broader reading, they often met resistance. Manny Shinwell (b 1884) doggedly tackled volumes in the public library "whose contents I usually failed to understand". Allen Clarke (b.1863) the son of Bolton textile workers, found physiology books in the public library incomprehensible.

Even among autodictats, only a minority used public libraries, as evidenced by a 1918 study of 816 adult manual workers in Sheffield, which found that 20-26% were "intellectually well equipped", 67-73% were "inadequately equipped" and 5-8% were "mal equipped". Of eight men from the intellectual group, one "patronises the free library", one "borrows light literature from library" and one "occasionally borrows from the public library". Of five women from the intellectual group, one "never uses the public library" and another "occasionally visits an art gallery or the public library"

In a 1937 survey of 484 unemployed men aged 18 to 25 in south Wales, 57% identified reading as a major leisure activity, but only 20% ever visited public libraries, and just 6% were regular borrowers. As late as 1940, Mass Observation found that while 55% of working class adults read books, 66% never bought books. 68% never patronised any kind of library and only 16% used the public library.

By the Second World War the phenomenon of the working class autodidact was at its peak: "The roots of that autodidactic culture go back as far as the late middle ages. It surged in the nineteenth century, particularly in Joseph Ashby's late Victorian generation, and crested with the Labour Party landslide of 1945, the climax of this history. Thereafter, the working class movement for self education swiftly declined, for a number of converging reasons. This is, then, a success story with a downbeat ending."

It is a similar story for working class use of public libraries, which also peaked just after the Second World War, and has never fully recovered. But, as Rose suggests, this should not make us despondent:

"In current debates over cultural literacy, it would be a serious error to look for any golden age in the past. The WEA and Everyman's Library did noble work, but only for a motivated minority: Britain really is better off with the Open University and Penguins in every airport bookstall. The question that still confronts us is whether this vast cultural wealth is fairly shared among all, in inner city schools as well as those that serve the affluent. In that sense E.D.Hirsch is entirely right to criticise the mal-distribution of knowledge in contemporary America. When he argues that democracy and equality are impossible without mass cultural literacy, he is only saying what generations of British working people know in their bones."

In my next article I shall be considering present day use of public libraries by the working class, the distribution of knowledge in contemporary Britain, and how to improve it.


Baggs, Chris Mrs Evans had Lady Chatterley's Lover out for over a month: examining reading habits in miner's library in the 1930s (Libraries and the working classes since the eighteenth century, Leeds Metropolitan University, 16-17 June 2004)

Gunn, Simon Reflections on the History of Class (Libraries and the working classes since the eighteenth century, Leeds Metropolitan University, 16-17 June 2004)

Rose, Jonathan The Intellectual Life of The British Working Classes (Yale University Press, 2002)

Rose, Jonathan Arriving at a History of Reading (Libraries and the working classes since the eighteenth century, Leeds Metropolitan University, 16-17 June 2004)

Thompson, E.P. (1963) The Making of the English Working Class, Vintage

John Pateman
Head of Libraries, Sport and Support Services
Lincolnshire County Council
23 May 2004


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