Reflecting on the History of Libraries

National Libraries Day is an occasion to celebrate the vital public service that libraries perform and no doubt many libraries throughout the country will be joining in with a variety of events and activities.  However, it also offers the opportunity to reflect upon the history of libraries and how their purpose and operations may have changed over the years. By timely coincidence, staff in MMU Special Collections were recently given a glimpse into this history from an unexpected and unique source.

Whilst tidying up our paper store we came across a large folio volume with the title ‘Public Libraries’ stamped upon the spine. Looking inside we found a substantial collection of ephemera which had been collected from a large number of public libraries between 1879 and 1890. Listed on the library catalogue simply as a library scrapbook, there is no indication as to who compiled the album, why it was compiled, or how it ended up in MMU Special Collections. However, the material it contains offers a fascinating glimpse into the establishment of the free public library system, the development of library services and also the day to day working practices of public libraries in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century.

The ephemera has been gathered from public libraries throughout Britain and the content is highly varied. There are several examples of flyers, posters and articles relating to the setting up of free libraries following a series of Public Libraries Acts from the 1850s onwards. These would appear to reflect the rise of interest in a public library service which gathered momentum in the 1880s. They also  reveal a strong sense of the need and desire to set up libraries for the benefit of the local community.  The arguments put forward in their favour, such as those listed in the newspaper article below, resonate strongly today, especially given the recent spate of public library closures.


On a more light-hearted note, there are a variety of advertisements for innovative library equipment such as Cotgreave’s Library Indicator. This was ‘A very ingenious device for facilitating the work of lending libraries by simplifying and expediting the issue of books.’  Furthermore, Cotgreave’s Indicator is ‘not only a very useful accessory but it is very ornamental as well.’

Amongst our favourites is Cotgreave’s Long-Reacher.  This was an invention which enabled the librarian, or reader, to reach articles from even the highest shelves.  It could also be fitted with a small lamp when required and, according to one of the advertisements, was in use in the Bodleian Library, Oxford and the Corpus Christi College Library, Cambridge.

The album also contains examples of more mundane paperwork.  These include lists of rules and regulations, letterheads, date labels, application forms for membership, lists of periodicals and newspapers held, readers cards and innumerable other items relating to the day to day running of a public library in the late nineteenth century.

However prosaic these may appear at first glance, they nevertheless help to build up a unique collection of material.  Much of it may seem, though interesting, merely amusing and largely irrelevant to the work of libraries today.  However, much that the album contains attests to the abiding importance of a free public library service and could hardly be more pertinent on National Libraries Day in 2016.

National Libraries Day takes place on Saturday 6 February 2016. To find out more visit or follow the hashtag #librariesday on Twitter.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s