Libraries & Culture 37.2 (2002) 194-196
[Access article in PDF]
The Public Library in Britain 1914-2000
The Public Library in Britain 1914-2000. By Alistair Black. London: British Library, 2000. xii, 180 pp. £30.00. ISBN 0-7123-4685-6.
In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the first British Public Libraries Act receiving royal assent on 14 August 1850, Alistair Black has written this important study of public library development between 1914 and 2000. As with his A New History of the English Public Library: Social and Intellectual Contexts, 1850-1914 (London: Leicester University Press, 1996), there is no attempt to provide a "total" history but, rather, an "interpretation" (xi) of the history of British public libraries placed within a "relatively generous historical frame" (5).
Since Black acknowledges that he is "seeking to continue here the approach that I developed in the prequel" (5), it is inevitable that this sequel should be evaluated in relation to the earlier study. One can begin by congratulating Black for his tour de force. These two volumes, on his country's public library development, provide a brilliant insight that is unmatched within the English-speaking world. At once, he combines the elements of commemoration, scholarship, and public policy placed within the contexts of contemporary social and political thought. That said, it must also be conceded that this volume is much slimmer at 180 pages than its predecessor at 353 pages. As such, there has been a significant decrease in the amount of space devoted to both the broader intellectual framework and details on individuals and institutions. This scaling-down is both fortunate and unfortunate. On the one hand, it permits an effective overview; on the other, it prevents in-depth development of ideas and details. For instance, one misses the extended study of library architecture that was such a delight in the earlier volume.
Although developed less fully in this volume than its predecessor, the themes of utilitarianism and idealism provide the backbone of the study. The narrative hangs upon "the interface between the public library and the self"--the belief that "the public library has always sought to satisfy community and individual needs" (6). The problem, as Black sees it, is that "in the increasingly collectivist twentieth century" (9) undue stress has been placed upon the library's utilitarian communal role. In counterbalance, he argues that the idealist viewpoint has continuing validity, "that everybody, every self, ha[s] a role to play in, and a contribution to make to, the social world" (8). Moreover, he argues that the role of the individual has been central to modernity and that for the past three centuries libraries--of all types--have served as fonts of reason and catalysts of progress. Libraries have been, if not central to the "project of modernity," then certainly notable contributors to it (7-8).
In developing his theme, Black has divided the book into six chapters, each of which concludes with a consideration of "self":
Chapter 1: Introduction: Themes and Sources (The Public Library Observed, Museums of Modernity, The Victorian and Edwardian Legacy, The New Library History, Community Modernity and the Self, A Note on Sources) [End Page 194]
Chapter 2: Science and Citizenship: 1914-1919 (Reconstruction Education and the Revolutionary Threat, The Role of Government, The Work of the Public Library Movement, Support from Business, Citizenship Science and the Self)
Chapter 3: Grids and Masons, 1919-1939 (Class and Community, The Library Grid, The Unemployment Threat, Mass Media Popular Culture and Englishness, The Librarianship Masonic Circle, Civilization and the Self)
Chapter 4: Bombs and Blueprints, 1939-1945 (Wartime Damage and Shortages, Interest from Government and the Voluntary Sector, The Reading Boom, Other Responsibilities, Nottinghamshire's War, From Crisis to Renewal, The McColvin Blueprint, A Wartime Retirement: W. B. Thorne, Public Service and the Self)
Chapter 5: Welfarism and Modernization, 1945-1976 (From Austerity to Affluence, Size Matters, Modern Times, Popular Culture, Libraries in Society, The Public Library and the Modern Self)
Chapter 6: Cuts and Computers, 1976-2000 (Cuts, Class, Corporate Culture, Computers, The Public Library and the Postmodern...