It’s odd to think that the Chartist mass meeting up on Selsley Hill
Contributed to the formation and spread of public libraries.
But it’s true, after a fashion.
The Chartist decade of 1838 to 1848,
The ruling class fear of revolution,
The threat to private property and profit,
The association of freethinking with ‘intemperance’,
All helped lead to the 1850 Public Library Act,
The cult of municipal museums too,
And the Victorian emphasis on private study,
Within a public or familial space:
The familiar trope of the Victorian working class male autodidact.
‘We must educate our masters’,
Said Home Secretary, Robert Lowe,
After the urban working class gained the vote in 1867,
But self-help, the 3 R’s, libraries, museums and schools
Didn’t necessarily mean universal conformist thinking:
Fiction fostered the imagination, and non-fiction the frown:
Reading could lead to questioning, and such questioning,
Coupled with the study of a book’s bibliography
Could lead to the polite request that the local library
Might order a required book –
Not on the shelves –
Either as new stock,
Or from another library,
Out of town or county:
This was a public, national service,
Not just a municipal one.
Public libraries, public housing, public houses, public services,
Public footpaths, public baths, public broadcasting, public space,
Public health, public transport, public reading:
Children clutching their four books under their arms,
On their fortnightly visit,
Learning the nature of youthful citizenship
When paying their fines if overdue,
Studying the stamps and dates at the front of the book:
Wondering about who might have had this book before,
What were they like?
Were they just the same as me?
Would we ever meet, and discover that…
Once upon a time …
Or gauging the popularity of a book,
How could it be that no one had taken this book out for two years,
Two months and twenty-six days!
And when receiving a book through the out of county service,
The seemingly random nature of geography
And one’s own personal taste,
Resulting in strange affinities and remembrances:
How did Stroud know this book I needed
Was in Lewes Public Library?
In that faraway county called Sussex.
And back then,
There were libraries in all the suburbs, towns, cities, villages
And counties in our country, and travelling libraries too
For hamlets and isolated homesteads in the back of beyond,
Back in the time when England, Wales,
Scotland and Northern Ireland
Were not called Amazonia:
Use it or Lose it.