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The Arguments Against (and For) Public Libraries in 1850

The Public Libraries Act of 1850 was tabled by Liberal MPs in the face of Conservative opposition.

The major arguments against the Bill were:

  • Although the boroughs were represented by elected bodies, many people argued that the Act enforced taxation without consent.
  • There was opposition to the Act simply on the grounds that founding and maintaining the new libraries would mean an increase in taxation at all, consensual or otherwise.
  • Concerns were expressed that it would infringe on private enterprise and the existing library provision such as mechanics’ institutes.
  • Access to certain publications would neither promote civil society nor act as a form of social control, and libraries would instead become sites of social agitation. This issue was linked to the common concern that extending education to the lower orders of society would lead to libraries becoming working class “lecture halls” “which would give rise to an unhealthy agitation”.
  • Others felt that there were more pressing concerns, and wondered about the necessity for a library when literacy levels were so low.
    The Bill was favoured by many people provided there was a cap on the level of taxation, on the grounds that:

  • Public libraries would provide facilities for self-improvement through books and reading for all classes, not just those who were wealthy enough to afford their own private libraries and collections.
  • The greater levels of education attained by providing public libraries would result in lower crime rates.
    It is amazing how little has changed in 163 years.


    On receiving this information, Lucius Apronius, successor to Camillus, alarmed more by the dishonour of his own men than by the glory of the enemy, ventured on a deed quite exceptional at that time and derived from old tradition. He flogged to death every tenth man drawn by lot from the disgraced cohort.

    Tacitus, Annals, 3.21

    De-ci-ma-tion Historically, the meaning of the word decimate is ‘kill one in every ten of (a group of people)’. This sense has been more or less totally superseded by the later, more general sense ‘kill, destroy, or remove a large proportion of’, as in the virus has decimated the population.

    While on a national level since the cuts began two years ago one in 10 libraries has not been closed (yet) on a local level a number of councils have cut their library services down to mere shadows of their former selves.

    In 2010 and 2011 when the first cuts were announced there were rumours of closures and redundancies; and, in many cases the reality was worse than the rumours.

    I was one of the early casualties of the library cuts – in 2011 my post was abolished after months of being reassured that it was an essential part of the service and I was the first to leave.

    In a way I was lucky as I did not have the opportunity to apply for remaining posts and have to go toe to toe with colleagues who remained, there was also the fact that the day after I was cut I was offered a post in a school library where I am still working.

    After two years of austerity measures library staff are well-aware of what is going to happen. Libraries have had what fat they had trimmed away. In some places the cuts have been down to the bone. For any more meaningful savings to be made from libraries more branches will be closed, staff will be axed and hours reduced. Library staff that are still in post would, in many cases, have gone up against colleagues and friends for the jobs they have, they won and now they have to do it again. Council staff are demoralised, after tow years of uncertainty they will be pared down again, I have been chatting to a friend about the bunker mentality that some librarians are adopting and focusing on services in their branches at the expense of team-working across their local authorities.

    Between 2010 and 2016 most library services will lose 30% to 40% of their budget. The extent varies, but few organisations can take a hit in their budget of that size and carry on unchanged

    Once the dust has settled we will be lucky if it is only one in 10 libraries that have closed.