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.

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