LIBRARIES IN LIVERPOOL
Our November 2013 talk - reviewed by Mike Chitty
John Tiernan, who spoke to us on 24th November, entitled his talk 'Benevolent Patronage' - because, historically, libraries were paid for by individuals who had spare funds. In Liverpool, a mariner called John Fells gave St Peter's Church a donation in 1715 to purchase books for sailors to read. Also, some of the clubs and educational institutions in Liverpool provided libraries for their members: the Lyceum, the Athenaeum and the Royal Institution. William Roscoe, a self-educated Liverpool man who made (and lost) a lot of money in banking, was involved in the last two of these.
Legislation in the 1840s led to the establishment of Mechanics Institutes, some of which (e.g. in Bradford and Liverpool) had libraries. The Museums Act 1845 was used in Warrington and Salford to set up public libraries. The Public Libraries Act 1850, promoted by Liverpool M.P. William Ewart, empowered councils to levy a halfpenny rate - subject to a local ballot - in order to provide libraries.
Liverpool Corporation did not adopt the national Act. Instead, in 1852 it obtained its own Act of Parliament allowing it to establish a Museum and Library to house the Earl of Derby's bequest. The Corporation bought the former Union Newsroom in Duke Street for use as a library (a plaque today records the fact) and built others in Park Lane and Bevington Bush. Shortly afterwards, an Irishman called William Brown, who had made a fortune trading in America and returned to live in Liverpool, paid for a new library building in Shaw's Brow - renamed William Brown Street in his honour. The building was extended in the 1870s by the addition of the Picton Reference Library, named after James Allanson Picton who was chairman of the Libraries Committee for many years.
John showed us a series of contemporary cartoons. 'Chaos in the lending library' depicted the mayhem that it was feared would ensue if the Great Unwashed were given open access. He also read us a poem by Maud Budden - "You can't make a noise in the Picton ..." - from the 'Liverpolitan' magazine. Some libraries, he told us, had separate Ladies Rooms and Boys Rooms to save the men from 'prattle'.
After Picton's death in 1889, Liverpool's chief librarian Peter Cowell got together with the architect (and Borough Surveyor) Thomas Shelmerdine to plan a series of district libraries. Some of these were financed by Andrew Carnegie, a Scot who made a fortune in the U.S. steel industry and "became a philanthropist to improve his image". John mentioned the branch libraries in Kensington, Everton, Lister Drive, Garston and Sefton Park as examples. Liverpool also built up a collection of rare books, thanks in part to bequests from wealthy individuals such as Hugh Frederick Hornby.
More branch libraries were built in suburban areas after both the First and the Second World Wars. But nowadays the financial pressures on the Council are such that several have been closed and others are under threat. Meanwhile the Central Library in William Brown Street has been remodelled as a 'World Discovery Centre' - a PFI project completed in 2013. As John told us, "everyone who visits it is bowled over - even those who were dubious".
According to the TripAdvisor website, the new library is Liverpool's No.1 visitor attraction. John's talk helped us to see it in its historical context - the latest stage in a story stretching back over two centuries.