Saturday, 22 January 2011

Public Private Libraries

The History Group to which I belong has reached the time of the English Civil Wars and at the moment we are all busy researching the period around 1650. Because I know almost nothing about him other than that he wrote the poem To His Coy Mistress, I offered to explore the life of Andrew Marvell, who was not only a poet but also a man active in many different aspects of public life; indeed, if the rumours that he was a spy are well-founded, also active in less public aspects of government enterprise as well.

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.



  1. I'm sorry to hear that your local public libraries are under pressure. Your post made me realise how lucky we are here in Australia, and how much I take that for granted. Our local libraries seem to be thriving, and improving all the time, being wonderfully innovative in the way they focus on providing an attractive environment to children of all ages.

  2. I've been envious of the Australian system for some time, Karyn. When I was teaching primary it was very clear that the way in which you taught language skills was far superior to ours as well.

  3. Hi Annie,

    As you pointed out, many of our stately homes have vast private libraries, full of a rich wealth of knowledge and history,which has hitherto, in most cases, been accessible on a 'look, don't touch basis'

    As long term members of 'The National Trust, we are now being bombarded with literature about their attempts to start their own 'Big Society', where NT land and properties are more accessible to familes.

    Part of this strategy is to allow the handling of many of the pieces and books within their properties. What do you think of this as a strategy, do we allow the handling of antiquities as a means of engaging people, or are NT just running a real risk of damage to these treasured heirlooms?

  4. Hi Yvonne,

    It's a tricky one, isn't it? I'm an NT member as well, so I know the literature you mention. I'm torn and if I'm honest glad that I don't have to make the decision. Books are meant to be read, not to grace someone's bookshelf as an interior design accessory, but some of them do have a value beyond the monetary one. What would happen if we allowed the few remaining First Folio editions of Shakespeare to be handled by anyone who wanted to?

    Ultimately, of course, the answer to the library problem is not nor for the NT but for government. I know we have to make savings, and I know I'm biased, but cutting back on opportunities for people to engage with learning doesn't seem to me to be the way to go if you want to improve the economic potential of the country.

  5. The Marvell book sounds interesting as does your history group. Many libraries in the U.S. are experiencing cuts of many kinds and some of them are even turning to outsourcing if you can believe it. Good luck to your libraries. I hope the government comes to its senses!

  6. Sense and government are not words I tend to use in the same sentence where our current administration are concerned, Stefanie. And please don't suggest outsourcing to them. They can come up with enough outlandish ideas without picking up others from elsewhere. I don't know, they should leave the running of libraries to you and me, shouldn't they? We'd see that they were properly organised!!