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On 9 October 1896, a new branch library was opened in Liverpool. The Everton Public Library sported a style described at the time as “English Renaissance” (“Building Intelligence” 590) but subsequently categorized as “a free version of Jacobean” (Sharples 27). It was a look that the library’s architect, Thomas Shelmerdine, the corporation surveyor, applied to other public buildings in Liverpool, including later Edwardian branch libraries. The accommodation comprised (1) a closed-access lending library; (2) a general reading room where, among other materials, newspapers and magazines could be consulted; 3) a “room for ladies”; and (4) a boys’ room —a misnomer in that girls, in this library as in others, would almost certainly have been able to use this space also. The library, its rooms confined to the ground floor, shared the building with a technical school with five classrooms, two on the first floor and three in the basement (“Building Intelligence” 590; Cowell 155–71). [End Page 40]
By 1901, around a hundred public libraries and technical schools were sharing the same premises.1 In the context of the public library, this marriage of science and culture had been thriving since the institution’s legislative inception in 1850.2 Against a backdrop of recurring fears about intensifying international economic competition, the public library in Britain, from its outset, aimed in part to fulfill a utilitarian—including a vocational—function (Jevons). A number of libraries developed highly specialized technical collections linked to prominent local industries: for example, mining in Wigan and textile manufacturing in Bradford.
The image of educational seriousness generated by the public library’s practical-scientific side built on the institution’s inclination toward elite culture, its bedrock purpose. Zealously, librarians and library promoters endorsed the “canon.” Controversy over the place of imaginative literature in libraries— what eventually became known as the Great Fiction Question—dogged public library development from the start. Why, it was asked, should local taxpayers fund pleasure palaces for reading—reading, moreover, that was potentially damaging morally and politically? To placate economizers and moralizers, library managers defended their institutions as sites of high culture. In reality, however, to keep reader numbers high, they subverted their rhetoric by packing the shelves with fiction, a large proportion of which ventured into the realms of popular culture. The visible discourse of public library provision, therefore, was a mixture of civilizing culture and useful knowledge. This was reflected in the libraries’ built form. At once cathedrals of culture and citadels of science, they were perceived as both monument and machine.
Monumental architecture celebrates an event, a person, or an ideology. Its intention is to impress. In this regard, Victorian public libraries were criticized for trying too hard. Catalyzed by civic pompousness, they were accused of being over-elaborate and lacking functionality. In short, designs were provider-focused rather than user-focused. The declared aim of fashioning “good citizens” through “good” reading in “respectable” and “uplifting” environments cloaked in establishment architecture prompted claims that public libraries were subtle instruments of social control whereby, against their natural inclinations but to the advantage of industrial capitalist society, working-class readers had their tastes improved and their unruly natures disciplined by strict library rules. This account of “mistaken” Victorian library architecture is itself mistaken.
The monumentality of early public libraries was not simply a matter of self-indulgence in public art linked to an over-blown civic pride. In fact, the monumentality of most library architecture had a utilitarian purpose in that its intention was to attract readers, and, contrary to any social control thesis, there is little evidence that it deterred them. The social causes of public library architecture go beyond these reductive explanations. Like the books they contained, Victorian public library buildings can be read and their meanings investigated and debated (Black, Pepper, and Bagshaw). [End Page 41]
Naturally, architects in their designs and library committees in their selections (many of which resulted from architectural competitions) generally displayed a preference for styles that were fashionable at the time. Those...