PUBLISHED: 11:53 23 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:34 20 February 2013
People borrowed almost 3.5 million items from gloucestershire libraries last year. They are a resource we must guide jealously
It was in 1850 that the first Act of Parliament was passed to give Boroughs power to establish public libraries. 'For the convenience and useful occupation of such libraries', expenditure could be on buildings, heating, lighting, furnishings and fittings - but no mention of books! It had been expected that books would be donated. It was not until 1853 that this curious position was put right and successive Acts made provision for the rather essential stocking and circulating of books the libraries had been designed for. Boroughs, like Cheltenham for instance, therefore had their own public library and it was not until 1919 that County Councils were given power to become library authorities. Rural areas had to rely on private enterprise; small market towns often had a 'lending library' scheme running through stationers and chemist shops - the famed national one being the Boots Circulating Library, which had over 400 branches by the mid-Thirties, immortalised in John Betjeman's lines of 1940: Think of what our Nation stands for,
Books from Boots, and country lanes ...
J Arthur Gibbs writing his evergreen country classic at the end of the Victorian era, tells in his A Cotswold Village of the Reading Room he established in a small stone shed in his garden for the Bibury and Ablington folk, listing in a small black notebook the titles of his books and the borrowers' names.
Gloucestershire established its County Library in 1918, building on the successful pilot scheme financed two years earlier through the Carnegie United Kingdom Trustees, following a survey carried out on library facilities available in rural areas. Our county library service can claim to be one of the oldest in the country as Gloucestershire was one of only two counties in England to pioneer the scheme of extending the principle of circulating books to rural areas for 'the advantages hitherto limited to the larger centres of population'. Much of the success was due to supplying the village schools that were spread all over the administrative area at that time; village institutes and clubs also joined the scheme and in the first year 127 centres were opened with the books under the charge of the head teacher of the County school in the neighbourhood. The large wooden library boxes, containing 30-40 books, made many an impromptu dais in village schools from which the head teacher conducted morning assembly.
By 1923 the county library service was reporting an annual issue of 190,000 books through 437 centres, and from its inception in 1918 to 1932 the Gloucestershire Library had issued nearly three million books, with the number borrowed in 1931 recorded as 450,121 from its stock of 62,400 volumes.
Last year's County Library figures show that some 3,404,195 items were issued from a lending stock of 599,601 which includes talking and pictures books, music CDs, DVDs and videos as well as the traditional reading books with some 20 per cent of the population being active library members. These are served by 39 libraries, with additional library services for education, Homelink and RNIB facilities for the visually impaired and homes for the elderly, and four mobile libraries take books to the rural routes east, central and west in the Cotswolds. Gloucestershire Library's web site from which a vast range of information can be accessed is regarded as their fortieth library.
Dinosaurs in brightly painted colours of the Share-a-Book children's mobile library van attract the attention of the very youngest of readers. Share-a-Book is unique in the county and aboard the van a wide selection of books, story tapes and dual language type books and a computer for children to access downloaded material and activities takes the world of reading and learning to those who are not within easy reach of the traditional library.
Itinerant libraries can be found operating in a number of countries: the most primitive must be the 'donkey libraries' of Columbia which take books to the more isolated jungle and sierra regions. The donkeys are loaded with large green carrier bags with capacious pockets filled with books and led by the rider with the announcement that this is the Biblioburro strapped across his panniers. The bags of books are hung from a post or a tree and left for several weeks in the charge of a teacher or a village elder. There is always someone in the small community who can read to those that cannot.
'Books are our best possession in life, they are our immortality. I deeply regret never having possessed a library of my own', wrote Varlam Chalamov during his sentence of hard labour in the mines of Kolyma. He found consolation and hope among the 'miserable shelves' of the prison library which had somehow escaped the purges of Stalin. The history of libraries is punctuated with the dedication and ingenuity of people across the world saving books from oppressive regimes. Just eight books made up the clandestine children's library of Block 31, an extension of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Each night the books were hidden away from the guards along with any bits of food or medicine that an inmate from another camp might have managed to smuggle in. Appointed prisoners were allocated as counsellors and, even under the strictest surveillance, the counsellors would recite to the children books they had learned by heart in earlier days. These 'readings' were made to different small groups so that in time each of the five hundred children had taken part in what was termed as 'exchanging books in the library'.
Literature's famed Robinson Crusoe had the smallest library of all - just one book, the Good Book - his new society's essential tool. The oldest and most ambitious of all known libraries was the Library of Alexander, set up as a learning centre at the end of the third century BC. Previous libraries were private collections, but the idea of a universal library was the realisation of a colossal dream by King Ptolemy I who, according to a document discovered the following century, wrote 'to all the sovereigns and governors on earth' begging them to send him every kind of book by 'poets and soothsayers, historians, and all others too'. The king's scholars calculated that five hundred thousand scrolls would be required if they were to collect in Alexandria 'all the books of all the peoples of the world'. The result was an incredible multitude of libraries - but no contemporary description of what the actual building that housed what was set out to be 'the storehouse for the memory of the world'. Twenty years ago the first stone of the vast new Library of Alexandria was laid.
Interpreting a library as a whole range of different aspects and source for inspiration in its very being, Alberto Manguel's recently published book is a whole mine of information on the library as myth, order, space, shape, chance, workshop, imagination, identity and home within its history and place in society. The value of both paper and electronics co-existing in promoting and preserving works of words is well presented and underlines our Gloucestershire Library concept that its web site is, in fact, its fortieth library. And, it would be good to think that somewhere in one of the libraries, whether public or private, there is a collection of every single issue of Cotswold Life published over its forty years preserved for posterity - watched over by Saint Jerome, patron saint of readers!