It’s National Libraries Day on Saturday the 6th February, so here at the Library of Birmingham we’re celebrating with a blog about the history of library services in Birmingham.
Prior to the involvement of the Town Council in 1860, libraries in Birmingham were in private hands, though some did provide public access, albeit at a cost or through subscription. For instance, a free library was established in 1733 through the will of a Reverend Higgs, though it catered only for Anglican clergy and other privileged people. Books were also ‘hired out’ by one Thomas Warren in 1729. A subscription library was certainly in existence by 1751, run by William Hutton, a bookseller and historian based in Bull Street. A number of others followed, with that of John Lowe charging an annual subscription of between 12s and 1½ guineas by 1776.
The biggest advance was made in 1779, when the Birmingham Library was founded by subscription. Whilst the number of subscribers rose steadily, the number of volumes housed in the library grew from 900 to some 16,000 between 1794 and 1818.
Another library was maintained by the Birmingham and Midlands Institute, founded in 1854. This organisation was successful as it appealed to both the middle and working class on a broad base of subjects, and attracted other private collections, like that of John Lee and those from other institutions, now defunct, such as the Mechanical Institute and the People’s Instruction Society.
The Free Libraries Act
The Free Libraries Act was passed in 1850. It allowed councils to set up free public libraries, allotting one penny in a pound from the rates to finance this (in pre-decimal currency there were 240 pennies in a pound). Two-thirds of the ratepayers had to agree, but when Birmingham first voted in 1852 the majority was not large enough. In 1860 the second vote was successful, and the Free Libraries Committee was set up.
They decided there should be a central reference library with reading and newsrooms, a museum and art gallery, and four district libraries. The architect E. M. Barry was asked to design the Central Library. His costs overall were too high, so William Martin was asked to design the interior, but Barry’s plans for the exterior were retained. Continue reading