Meera Nair

ghosts of libraries past

In Posts on December 24, 2013 at 7:45 am

Charles Dickens is with us at this time of year, his own ghostly visitation appearing via A Christmas Carol. But his spirit may have been addedly engaged last week when the news broke that scholars at Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf  had ranked the Vancouver Public Library (together with Montreal’s Bibliotheque) as the world’s best public library.

This evaluation of libraries came through focus upon “informational cities,” defined as “prototypical spaces of the knowledge society … where flows of information, capital, and power are as or more important than physical spaces (p.1).” Even more critical than the ranking, although as a Vancouverite I would not wish to renounce it entirely, the analysis makes plain that libraries form “an essential part of the city’s … knowledge and creative infrastructure… (p.313).” It is this sentiment that furthered the establishment of public libraries in England in the 19th century.

In 1850, the English House of Commons undertook an inquiry into the nature of their libraries with the conclusion that, in comparison to Europe, Britain was inferior in terms of libraries freely available to the public. As reported by the Spectator, 12 November 1853, this situation was “unworthy of the power, the liberality, and the literature of this country.”

From the inquiry came an act to enable Town Councils to establish public libraries and museums. The first such public library was the Manchester Free Library; it opened on 2 September 1852 with Charles Dickens among the speakers. As revealed by the Manchester Archives during the bicentennial celebrations of his birth, Dickens had accepted the invitation with alacrity. “… My engagements are very numerous but the occasion is too important and the example too noble to admit of hesitation.” Assigned the task of introducing the resolution, Dickens gave added thrust to the importance of public libraries:

“That as in this institution special provision has been made for the working classes, by means of a free lending library, this meeting cherishes the earnest hope that the books thus made available will provide a source of pleasure and improvement in the cottages, the garrets, and the cellars of the poorest of our people.” …  Ladies and gentleman, I have long been, in my sphere, a zealous advocate for the diffusion of knowledge among all class and conditions of men; because I do believe, with all the strength and might with which I am capable of believing anything, that the more a man knows, the more humbly, and with a more faithful spirit he comes back to the fountain of all knowledge, and takes to his heart the great sacred precept, “On earth peace, good will towards men.” Ladies and gentleman, I have great pleasure in moving the resolution which I have already read to you.*

The significance of the role played by public libraries was not lost on the colonies. Reporting on the opening ceremonies in Manchester, the Empire (Sydney) emphatically called upon its elite to step forward and give the City of Gold such an institution. Describing Manchester’s initiative:

They assembled to establish no Charity School, with a scrannel supply of innutritive knowledge for the workers, but a great and enduring institution filled with the light of genius from every age and every land, where the gifted sons of poverty may burst from their bonds … for the advancement of civilisation and the highest interests of the human race.

In Canada, Dr. Alphaeus Todd, Librarian of Parliament, in a plea to improve supply of reading material to residents, also pointed to English developments. Courtesy of Libraries Today, his report to the Royal Society of Canada (1882) is available here. Quoting from the first librarian of the Manchester Free Library, Todd wrote:

… Without exception, the working of all the free libraries so established and brought into active operation has proved eminently satisfactory to all classes of ratepayers.  It has largely promoted that industrial education which fits men for their specific callings in life, as well as that wider education that reaches farther and higher…. (p.16).

Closer to home, the British Columbia provincial legislature passed a Free Libraries Act in 1891. In Dave Obee’s The Library Book—A History of Service to British Columbia, former Lieutenant Governor Iona Campagnola writes that the history of library services in British Columbia:

… is a testament to individual determination intended to overcome all challenges associated with B.C.’s difficult geography, complicated history, sparse population and ever-shifting economy…. Through their own love of books, men and women worked hard to enrich the unique culture of this precious province of ours. They knew the value of the gift of learning, education and knowledge that was to be found in libraries, and they knew the simple joy of being able to borrow literary works of history, fiction, poetry, drama and criticism, to experience a “really good read!”

After the Manchester event, Dickens would write to a friend: “I wish you could have seen the opening of the Free Library… Such a noble effort, so wisely and modestly made; so wonderfully calculated to keep one part of that awful machine, a great working town, in harmony with the other.”

History must always remain incomplete, but last week’s news gives hope that libraries may yet endure as “wise and modest” institutions facilitating harmony as much as knowledge.

* Charles Dickens, “Opening of the Free Library, Manchester.” The Speeches of Charles Dickens, ed. K.J. Fielding (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960) p.151-154.  Note: The text varies slightly from the archived speech presented by the NY Times.

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