In 19th-century Britain the cost of books – and even newspapers – put them beyond the reach of the working classes. The 1850 Public Library Act gave local boroughs the right to use money from public rates for the establishment of free public libraries. However, take-up was slow, particularly in London. It was only after the Queen’s Jubilee that Library Committees were set up across London to establish libraries in their areas. In 1890s London there was an explosion in public library building.
Public libraries were very often dismissed by others in the library profession as ‘dolls house’ institutions. In the late-Victorian period, they were inadequately funded and chief librarians might be instructed to write begging letters to local aristocrats asking them to donate their unwanted books to stock half-empty shelves. In 1877 the Library Association was established for a growing community of librarians, booksellers, publishers and authors. The so called ‘rate-assisted’ librarian was seen as the least important in this community: only one public librarian sat on a management committee of 22 people.
The standard practice in the first London public libraries was to keep books on ‘closed access’ meaning that the stock was not displayed on open shelves. Instead staff would bring publications to the users on demand. To help readers discover if the titles they wanted were available, libraries used ‘indicator systems’, mechanical devices which visually displayed the status of any title. Seen as more modern and efficient, ‘closed access’ was favoured by the vast majority of public librarians.
However, in 1895 James Duff Brown, the librarian at Clerkenwell Library made a dramatic decision. He decided to introduce open shelves at his library. The majority of public librarians opposed Duff Brown’s actions. Charles Goss, the Librarian at the Bishopsgate Institute, was especially vocal in his opposition. Together with John Frowde of Bermondsey and Edward Foskett of Camberwell, Goss established the Society of Public Librarians in 1895. This trade union for librarians sought to protect the interests of public librarians in the wider library world and to campaign for the maintenance of the indicator or closed access system.
‘The Battle of the Books’
The members of the Society of Public Librarians believed Duff Brown had only introduced open shelves to raise his own profile. They also believed he was being manipulated by others, including Thomas Greenwood (a wealthy publisher) and J.Y.W. MacAlister (a private librarian and one-time Chairman of the Library Association). The open access debates became so intense that they were reported in the Sun newspaper in 1897 under the headline: ‘The Battle of the Books: the Bitter War in the Library World’. Eventually, all municipal libraries did convert to open access but the revolution Duff Brown and his supporters had predicted took around twenty years to achieve.
This story was related at the Bishopsgate Institute open day by Michelle Johansen. Her discovery of correspondence about ‘the battle of the books’ led her to believe that the writing of library history in the UK has been skewed against the librarians who were opposed to ‘open shelves’, because so much of it was written and published by Duff Brown and his open access allies.
Her findings have been published in Library History journal (see Michelle Johansen, ‘A Fault-Line in Library History: Charles Goss, the Society of Public Librarians and ‘The Battle of the Books’ in the Late Nineteenth Century,’ Library History, 19 (2) (July 2003), pp. 75-91). Michelle’s thesis ‘The Public Librarian in Modern London (1890-1914): the Case of Charles Goss at the Bishopsgate Institute,’ (unpublished thesis), University of East London, 2006, further explores the career and influence of the long-serving librarian at the Bishopsgate Institute.