Birmingham’s Public Libraries

An image of the lending department in Ward End Library.

(Ref: WK-W2-10)

The new Library of Birmingham opens in 2013. Birmingham’s libraries have experienced many changes over the last two centuries but there has been continuity as well. These themes are documented in surviving records and images in our collections.

During the eighteenth century Birmingham’s libraries were in private hands, the first ‘Free Library’ having been established around 1733.

In 1860 the Council appointed a Free Libraries and Museums Committee. Branch libraries sprang up across the city during the 1860s  (as the one in the image above). In 1865 a new Central Library was opened in Ratcliffe Place.

An image showing the demolition of the old Birmingham Central Library on Ratcliffe Place

(Ref: Central Library box 26)

This building tragically burnt down in 1879 and was rebuilt on the existing site in 1882. The Ratcliffe Place building continued to be used for nearly 90 years until a new building opened in 1973, designed by John Madin. This one was being built as the old one was demolished.

The present Central Library has provided numerous services over the past four decades. Some we might think of as relatively modern were in fact developed early last century.

During the 1910s the Public Libraries Committee was investigating the role of libraries in the education of children. The committee hoped to promote ‘self development in an atmosphere of freedom’ and foster closer links with teachers. These initiatives form the foundations of the projects Library and Archive services have engaged in with communities and schools in recent years.

An image of the library van.

(Ref: WK-B11-1004)

In 1921 the Libraries Department adopted open access to some library stock. A full library catalogue was planned in 1929. The same year a motor vehicle was purchased to allow inter-library lending for the first time.

With the onset of immigration from Britain’s former colonies after the Second World War, a selection of Indian language books was provided by Central Library in 1954.

Michael Hunkin


One response to “Birmingham’s Public Libraries

  1. Pingback: Birmingham’s Public Libraries « VanRanke and Droysen

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