We are delighted to announce the launch of a new AHRC-funded research network on Community Libraries, which aims to establish a dynamic, multi- and interdisciplinary research forum to investigate the cultural history of libraries at the dawn of the modern age.
In the two centuries before the passage of the Public Libraries Act in the UK in 1850, libraries proliferated across the UK, Europe and North America on a bewildering variety of organizational models. Libraries emerged to serve particular communities, reflecting the specialist demands of military garrisons, emigrant vessels, prisons, schools, churches, mechanics institutes, factories, mills, and informal networks of medical men and lawyers. Libraries were part of the newly emerging leisure industry, with books available for hire from smallscale operators in inns, taverns, banks, railway stations, and coffee houses, and from the sprawling city circulating libraries associated with the rise of the novel. Subscription libraries, library societies, book clubs, and other proprietary institutions provided a forum for conversation, debate and sociability, and made a key contribution to the spread of new political ideas.
These libraries were not ‘public’ in the modern sense, supported by the taxpayer and lending books free of charge to the whole community, but they were a crucial part of an Enlightened ‘public sphere’. They served different communities, providing a space where civic, religious, political, and commercial values converged and overlapped. The Network will examine how different types of library interacted with local, national and international communities of readers. We will assess the contribution made by libraries to the circulation and reception of print of all kinds, and to the forging of collective identities amongst discreet groups of people. The Network has broader implications for social and gender history, encompassing not only the exclusionary tactics employed by libraries of different kinds, but also the potential for social mobility that access to literature opened up for certain sections of society. In the process, the research will inform current debates about the role of public libraries in shaping communities and promoting social mobility through literacy today.
Since they emerged in Britain, North America and continental Europe at around the same time, libraries offer tremendous potential for comparative history that has yet to be fully exploited – with territories adopting distinctive organisational models, yet consuming a remarkably similar canon of international bestsellers. The Network will assess the emergence of libraries in comparative perspective, asking how far models of library provision and administration were disseminated, discussed, imitated, and challenged as they travelled between different social environments and political regimes. In particular, the Network will assess the explanatory power of the Atlantic paradigm for library history, asking how far Atlantic libraries were distinctive from libraries elsewhere in the world, or whether a global perspective is more useful in explaining the emergence of different models of library provision.