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Inaugurated as, at once, an antidote to the social problems of industrialization and a cultural and "scientific" helpmate to progress in an industrial society, public libraries in Britain first appeared in 1850 and soon became a familiar feature, not only on the sociocultural, but also the urban-architectural, landscape. Over the past century and a half, changes in the public library built form have reflected changes in the aims of the public library movement, in architectural style and planning and in wider society. The development and symbolism of the public library built form is analyzed in five periods, stretching from the pre-First World War phases of civic architecture and large-scale philanthropic eclecticism, through the interwar period of embryonic modernism, to the post-Second World War era of full-blown modernism and the subsequent postmodernism of the digital age. In each of these periods, the public library building can be "read" as readily as the books they contained.