Saturday, 22 January 2011
Public Private Libraries
I have to admit that there was a second reason why I offered to carry out this research, namely, that I wanted an excuse to read the new and highly praised biography, Andrew Marvell: the chameleon, written by Nigel Smith. This book came last Autumn to stunning reviews and I've had it on my radar ever since.
This week I've been reading about Marvell's early years with his family in Yorkshire where his cleric father served as Master of Charterhouse in Hull. Andrew Marvell senior seems to have been a man of some vision and certainly very aware of being a public servant. He also clearly understood the value of books. As Smith tells us,
Marvell senior wanted to build a ceiling in the [Charterhouse] hall and above a new room that would function as a library, no doubt warmed by the large fireplace below in the hall. The library would be open to any in Hull who could make use of it.
Marvell left a very large part of his own collection of books as a foundation for this library.
If you live in the UK you cannot have escaped over the past few months the phrase, 'The Big Society', the current government's idea that the public at large should step in to replace the services that are being forced to cut back as a result of their (the government's) financial stringency. No doubt they would have heartily approved of the Rev. Marvell's actions. As, it should be said, (as long as you don't therefore draw the inference that I approve of the government) do I. But in the 1620s and 30s, which is when this was being discussed, there were far fewer books and far fewer readers. I can't think that there are many private libraries now that could seriously be made available to the public in this way. Despite the fact that many book bloggers probably feel they have more books than they can ever hope to read, maybe even more books than they can ever hope to count, if we were to open our doors we'd soon be forced to recognise that not only could we never satisfy the sheer volume of the demand we'd also be lacking the necessary variety required.
Certainly, there are still some wonderful private libraries around in various stately homes. I remember my father gazing longingly at shelves full of racing form books going back centuries in one such establishment. He would have given anything to have taken them down and buried himself in their pages for the rest of the day, if not the rest of the entire year. But, of course, he wasn't even allowed within breathing distance of them for fear his working class breath might damage a collection that didn't look as if it had been disturbed by the gentry in decades.
Realistically though, opening private collections to the public, whether they are yours, mine or those of the British aristocracy, isn't going to solve the dilemma that our library services face today. However, it is heartening to know that in the past there have been people like Andrew Marvell's father who have been far-sighted enough to recognise the importance of books to the public at large and who have done something practical to advance a vision of a wider reading community. I only hope that we can find the equivalent answer for our own times before our smaller, local public libraries have been allowed to vanish undoubtedly never to return.