Public Libraries and Political Ideologies

By Crook, Edgar | Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Public Libraries and Political Ideologies


Crook, Edgar, Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services


Libraries have progressed inexorably through all the political changes that have shaped the 20th century. Whatever the political leadership some aspect of the library ethos has fitted into all political paradigms. Neither the Left nor the Right have used libraries to attack their rivals or libraries in general. All traditional party political viewpoints regard education and access to information, and thus libraries, as a necessary part of civic society. However libraries have to be, and be seen to be, nonpolitical and nonpartisan

When we talk of public libraries at the end of the 20th century we mean libraries free at the point of use, provided by local authorities, and paid for by indirect taxation. Rate supported public libraries, as permitted by law, date in the UK from only 1850, and considerably later in Australia.

Yet libraries have always been popular. Before the advent of the public library readers sought ways to access what was essentially the internet, tv, cinema and radio rolled into one--books. According to Robin Alston's research at the University of East Anglia, there were over 12,000 libraries in existence in England between 1660 and 1850. This surely shows that people wanted books to borrow rather than buy. All but a few of these libraries were fee based subscription or circulation libraries. Considering their number, they must have fulfilled a strong public demand and at a reasonable price. What political forces then conspired to make lending libraries a governmental rather than a commercial concern? Why do we pay taxes for libraries? We see the obvious need for public schools, hospitals and transport--but why also libraries?

The basic need

Public libraries as the concern of local government came about because of various factors--benefactors, public will, and political acceptance. There was no great public campaign for them, there were no demonstrations for them and they did not appear as promises in any political party manifesto. Public libraries essentially grew from a basic need to have a place to store government information and reference works for the use of public and civil authorities. From these large centralised libraries the public began to demand loans, and the outlying areas and suburbs demanded equitable access in their own areas. In some cases they were prepared to pay a tax levy to have their own local library, or local political favouritism achieved one for them. Public libraries spread across the world.

In the Victorian era there was a consensus between the Left and the Right of the political spectrum that education and rising above lowly origins were great social aspirations. Education became mandatory in this period and produced a large rise in literacy levels. The effects of industrialisation, the growth of an urban underclass and the responsibilities of colonial expansion brought about an understanding that for societies to hold together, certain rights and benefits had to be bestowed upon the population. It is in this period of great change and industrialisation that universal male suffrage was granted and governments started meeting their part of the social contract by providing safety, housing and education.

The great Victorian building program which provided huge gothic museums, town halls, railway stations, churches and, of course, libraries commenced. However until it was forced on them local authorities were always wary of spending money on actually building local public libraries.

The real long term benefit of Andrew Carnegie, the greatest library benefactor of all, was not just from his providing seed money for suburban or small town libraries, but from his requirement that local authorities promise to maintain and support them once they were established. In this way Carnegie achieved 1,509 public libraries not only built but also provided for in the long term.

The value of political motives

Why did men of great wealth like Carnegie have libraries built? …

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