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  • Books, Buildings and Social Engineering: Early Public Libraries in Britain from Past to Present
  • Amanda Dinscore
Books, Buildings and Social Engineering: Early Public Libraries in Britain from Past to Present. By Alistair Black, Simon Pepper, and Kaye Bagshaw. Surrey, U.K.: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2009. 486 pp. £65.00. ISBN 978-0-7546-7207-4.

In the first book-length socioarchitectural history of early public libraries constructed in Britain between 1850 and 1939, the authors of Books, Buildings and [End Page 367] Social Engineering: Early Public Libraries in Britain from Past to Present detail the rich history of the public library as it once was: a source of great civic pride, enough so that politicians and social reformers considered libraries powerful political and social tools for investing in the infrastructure of a community and for influencing popular thought and behavior. The authors engagingly describe the development of these buildings as institutions that reflected the character of the times in which they were constructed. Many still function as libraries today. Additionally, the authors describe the current state of several of these libraries and the challenges inherent in modernizing historic buildings that continue to serve the practical needs of their users.

Previous work by the Library History Group of the Library Association (now the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) as well as funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council enabled the authors to conduct their research. To provide a foundation for the book they created a database of more than 950 existing and demolished library buildings, a condensed version of which is included as a gazetteer at the end of the book. Organized by city name, it provides valuable data for researchers, including dates of opening, philanthropists, architects, dates of extensions or additions, listing status, and principal bibliographical references. The authors plan to make this information available on a Web site, presumably free of charge, in the near future.

Books, Buildings and Social Engineering clearly benefits from this extensive research and will serve as an invaluable resource on early public library history in Britain. The first of its four parts, "Contexts," describes the major periods of library development and includes an analysis of how the early public library may be seen as a mechanism of social control or, as the authors counter, social engineering. Public libraries symbolized the dissemination of culture and learning, particularly among the working classes, and their development was of particular interest to Victorian social reformers and others with grand ambitions to ameliorate some of the social harm done by industrialization.

In part 2, "Periods of Public Library Design," the authors detail the development of public libraries under the Public Libraries Act of 1850, which allowed municipalities to establish tax programs aimed specifically at funding public libraries, thus ushering in the period of the "civic" public library. The authors provide rich architectural descriptions of many of these early buildings without overwhelming the reader with minutiae. This section in particular benefits from a discussion of the cultural significance of the buildings they describe. The book's emphasis on Britain does not prevent the authors from situating public library development within a larger context and including occasional comparisons to library development in other countries, particularly the United States. The comparison becomes particularly interesting during the "endowed" public library period, in which public libraries on both sides of the Atlantic benefited from wealthy philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie.

Part 3, "Thematic Studies," describes major themes of the periods under study and includes an engaging account of the movement to allow patron access to library collections. The authors effectively convey the heated nature of this once controversial idea with excerpts from letters published in prominent periodicals and images from pamphlets illustrating the potential dangers of open access. Indeed, throughout the text the authors make effective use of primary documents, including many photographs of library buildings and architectural drawings, which [End Page 368] expand their ideas and convey a richer sense of the historical periods and architecture under study. Part 3 also devotes a chapter to the development of children's libraries in Britain and provides a poignant history of this population of library users. A chapter entitled "The...


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