200 Years Ago : Norwich Library and the Arguments for an Increase in Subscriptions

During 2020, when there wasn’t exactly a great variety of things to do, I riveted and bored my loyal two readers with a series of posts from old newspapers. I’ve been meaning to do this more regularly, so here we go….. This article is from the Norwich Mercury of 29 August 1823, exactly 200 years ago. It’s all to do with the public library in Norwich, which caused all manner of debate from primarily the middle classes of the time and the newspaper had its own view it wanted to put forwards.

An article read:

“The communications to us upon this subject are this week so numerous, that in order to do justice to the strong interest excited, and at the same time to preclude filling our columns with the repetitions involved in the insertion of all the letters we have received, we are compelled to have resource to a summary of our own, in which we hope to give our readers a clear view of the case, while we shall avoid reiterating the disgraceful charges and recriminations which we are sorry to find bandied between the members of two establishments, the Public Library and the Literary Institution, both capable of great public advantage.”

This is a reminder of how the media at the time really said what it thought, there’s something delightful about phrases such as “disgraceful charges and recriminations”. The first public library in the city was the Norwich City Library established in 1608, which became a lending library in 1716. This evolved into the Public Library, which had been a separate body started in 1784, which spent decades arguing about management and structure before the 1850 Public Libraries Act was passed which changed matters somewhat. Anyway, in 1822, there was the creation of the Norfolk and Norwich Literary Institution and all hell broke loose with rival members sneering at the other. And the Public Library had no money, but more on this in the article.

“We shall simply observe, that if, as some of the letters addressed to us assert, there is a regular design, systematically pursued among certain subscribers to the latter to put down the former, and if, as others affirm, no such design exists – nothing can be more easy than to disprove the imputation. Those members who belong the Literary Institution have nothing to do but to abstain from taking any part in the transactions of the old Library meeting, a mode of proceeding recommended alike by delicacy and disinterestedness, and the charge falls to the ground; but if, on the contrary, they should be found in active hostility to the advance of the subscription, it will be difficult if not impossible for them to account satisfactorily and honourably for a desire to prevent the improvement of the existing plan of management.”

What a wonderful middle class debate this would have been, subscribers writing angrily to the papers about the subscribers of the other organisation.

“We say this much merely to meet the statements of our correspondents; for our own impression is, that after the convincing case of necessity the special committee of the Public Library has made out, every gentleman connected with the Literary Institution will, as a mere matter of honourable feeling, decline to oppose a measure so indispensable to the very existence of the library, as an increase of the subscription. The statement in their Report, on which we ground our opinion, is as follows:

‘We next proceeded to examine the finances of the library, and believe the following to be a correct estimate of the necessary annual expenditure, according to the existing laws, independently of the purchase of new books, viz'”

Delighted as I with the letters page of the magazine Viz, it feels a shame this word (short for videlicet) meaning ‘as follows’ has mostly fallen out of use. But I digress, there’s an angry library discussion being had here. Back to the library report:

“‘Rent 15l, rates & taxes 12l, repairs 10l – total 37 0

Payment to trustees 25l, insurance 6l – total 31 0

Librarian 56l 15 s, messenger and cleaner 14l 10s – total 71 5

Coals 18l, candles 7l, sundry expenses 14l – total 39 0

Binding 40l, printing and advertising 7l – total 47 0

Periodicals 45l, old books replaced 15l – total 60 0

NB, this statement includes the expence [sic] of the library being open in the evening, which (having been only suspended for the last season by the vote of October 1 1822), recommences on the 1st of September next, according the 13th law.

It appears, therefore, that we have a permanent expenditure of 285l 5s which must be provided for before any part of our income can be available for the purchase of new books. Supposing then that the actual number of effective subscribers should continue at 490, the present subscription of 12l would produce 291l, leaving only a surplus of 8l 15s, applicable to that purpose, except any sum which may be received for fines, the amount of which is uncertain, and cannot be estimated at more than 15l. On these data we cannot hesitate to express our decided opinion, that it is impossible to carry on the library with the present subscription, and that we deem it absolutely necessary to adopt some new regulations, in order to prevent a more extensive diminution of our numbers.”

This seems typical of some libraries today, they managed to spend nearly their entire income on wages, trustees, heating and librarians with nearly no money available for new books. The newspaper continued its view:

“This is decisive. This shews [this word has fallen out of usage, but I prefers it to shows] that it is impossible to carry on the library with any degree of satisfaction to the subscribers, unless the subscription be raised, whilst the defalcation in the subscriptions is attributable almost entirely to the want of new books. The opponents of the measure proceed upon the following principles: –

1 – That a more economical administration of the finances would suffice for all the purposes contemplated by an advance of the subscription.

2 – That all former attempts to this end having failed, such a proposition should not be resumed.

3 – That as the original intention was to institute a cheap source of amusement and information, the principle ought not to be departed from.

4 – That the subscribers will withdraw, if the subscription be raised.

5 – That evening attendance is unnecessary, as not applying to more than a few of the subscribers.

These, so far as we can collect them, are all the objections. We shall then take them in their order”

I’m getting genuinely excited now to see what the Norwich Mercury proposed, despite the reality that I’m about 200 years late to this debate.

“Is it possible to conceive that 8,000 volumes can be lodged and commodious accommodation provided for 500 subscribers who may demand admission to the library, at a less rate than 37l per annum? We believe no one avers [meaning ‘states the case’] that a cheaper arrangement could be made, and if we examine the other items, all that could possibly be appropriated to the current demands of the subscribers for books (taking the sum reserved for building to be a prudent provision) is from the item of 39l for coals, candles and sundries. A part and only a part can be deducted, and if we estimate this portion at 17l we leave about 25l in the hands of the Committee for the purchase of new books, beside periodicals. There is not a periodical work admitted into the Library, which is not of acknowledged celebrity and high character. Is there are any man who is at all acquainted with the fertility of modern literature, who will pretend to assert that 25l per annum is any thing like an adequate sum to provide for the most literary appetite of 500 persons? No one will we conceive be found hardy enough to stand up in the face of the society and make such a statement. Such a sum will scarcely purchase even the poetry and novels of the day – productions that are every where the topics of conversation, and which not to have read, almost stamps the individual with the inevitable shame of the darkest and most careless ignorance.”

I love this, someone who is not up-to-date with novels is guilty of “careless ignorance”. But, then again, there wasn’t much else to do in terms of entertainment back in 1823.

“These are the most common objects of enquiry, and must be supplied. But ought the provision for a community of 500 persons to be limited to the circulation of these the lowest perhaps though the objects of literary curiosity most in demand? Certainly not. How then is the just and natural desire of the subscribers to be satisfied without an advance of the subscription, and if this desire be not satisfied, is it to be supposed that the subscribers will not withdraw? We conceive they certainly will withdraw, for who will be content to sit down in the assurance of not being able to obtain a sight of any new books without a constant struggle for priority, frequent disappointment and generally not till a long period after its appearance?”

They’re right here IMO…..

“Such conditions, and these every dispassionate reader must see are the actual conditions imposed by keeping the subscription at its present rate, would infallibly drive the Society to dissolution. In conclusion we do not hesitate to declare our belief, that the finances of the Library have during the last year been managed with the most rigid economy; and we entertain no doubt that the worthy president will be able to sustain our confident assertion by the most complete and satisfactory proofs. As we have stated in a former article, that plan for a Library designed for the use of the Public, appears to be the most efficient and excellent, which includes at the least expence the greatest quantity of books most universally necessary and desirable. The Public Library is designed for the many, and if the subscription of one guinea be carried, it will, we apprehend, as exactly as can be apportioned, enable the committee to sustain this its original character of general utility.

All very reasonable, no new books means members will leave…

“The second ground of opposition is too futile, and we must say too obviously an interested one to need refutation. Every society must always enjoy the privilege of improving itself according to its progress and its means.”

They didn’t debate that second point for long.

“The third argument contains in itself the seeds of its own destruction. When the Public Library was first planned, a sum was named, which was then, in the comparatively infant state of the demand for books deemed sufficient for the purpose. It was an experiment untried in Norwich. The charge for the custody and repair of a large library had not then accrued. The number of periodicals necessary, nay indispensable, was nothing like what it is now. Those who originated the establishment naturally anticipated that the means would extend themselves as the objects of the Society extended. It seems a justifiable, nay an inevitable assumption, that as the property increased, as the stores of amusement and of information became a larger, a corresponding disposition would arise in the public to contribute a larger sum for the power of augmented enjoyment and augmented instruction.”

This is true, they were just a generation too early with this thinking…..

“And what is the fact? Why, because this disposition was either repressed by supposed obstacles to improvement which an imperfect mode of choosing the committee presented, because such an augmentation was rejected, a new institution has been set on foot, to which the subscription is not only not unmeasured in the niggardly way it is suggested the subscribers to the old library to dole out their support, but it is assessed at two guineas, more than thrice the amount of the contribution (12s) per annum to the Old Library. Here than example goes completely against precept. Here is an instance which shews the consequences of not meeting the fair exigencies [needs] of the times and circumstances on the one hand, and on the other, which practically demonstrates the evils of a parsimonious and the benefit of a liberal spirit.

In the instance of the Old Library, One Guinea a year is to be refused, we are told, for access to eight thousand standard volumes and a corresponding accumulation of new publications, while Two Guineas a year are not considered too much for the power of reading four thousand volumes, and a similar accession of the works of the day. With a proof to complete before their eyes, it seems next to impossible that the subscribers should not perceive the necessity and advantage of making the comparatively insignificant addition of 9s per annum to their present payment, which, operating over so large a number, would be as efficacious as double the amount over a smaller body. This comparison is but a tribute of respect to the spirit of the supporters of the New Institution, which really cannot be too highly applauded.”

There’s a parallel here with the closure of public libraries over the last ten years, it’s a short term cost saving with massively damaging long-term results.

“The fourth ground we look upon to be most palpably unfounded. Nor is it possible to conceive that the addition of so trifling, so paltry a sum as nine shillings  year, or twopence farthing a week, can be an object to any man who either has opportunity or inclination to read. And what is the alternative, what if he does withdraw? Where can he go to compensate himself so cheaply? No where. The supposition then is palpably absurd.

They seem right here, a small increase in the subscription with an obvious immediate benefit, would likely not lead to a mass withdrawal of members.

“The evening attendance appears to us to be a question of expediency, dependent upon the actual advantages that are expected to be derived. It seems to us to be of some importance to open to literary men the most ample opportunity of reference, and most especially to the youth of such a city as Norwich, the power if passing an evening amidst such sources of intelligence and gratification as the Old Library affords. And here again example may be pleaded. Other institutions, both in this and other places, have all considered such an addition to the benefits of an establishment indispensable. Why then is the Public Library of Norwich, with an ample list of subscribers, to be denied a similar privilege?”

It’s an interesting point, where else will people go in the evening and especially younger people? I’m not sure the inns and taverns of the city had a reputation for peace and tranquility at this time.

“Thus we have considered all the objections that have been sent to us against the proposed increase of subscription, and we hope we may have satisfied the minds of the subscribers at large, both by reasoning and example, that the proposal of the special committee ought to be supported and carried on the ground of general improvement. The Public Library, as the first establishment is endeared to the subscribers by time. It had disseminated an immense proportion of pleasure and information – it has indeed been the moving spring of general, of popular intellectual attainment for the city and county for a very long period. It has amassed a very respectable, nay a very valuable body of books for reading and reference, and in all departments of literature. Its affairs are administered in the most disinterested, in the most economical, and most upright manner. The only law which appeared to militate against the best mode of government will now probably be abrogated, and an unexceptionable method of choosing the committee substituted. The simple fact that the Committee is now self-elected as it were – that of 599 subscribers, 587 are precluded from the nomination of a single member of the directing body, and that the society has thus no effectual control over its executive, will be quite sufficient to work the requisite reformation.”

I love a bit of politics, the suggestion that there’s a gap between the members and the trustees. It’s likely that’s where the problems arose.

“It will be rendered, by the advance proposed, the cheapest accessible source of literary pleasure, as well as the most comprehensive, for these terms are of course relative, and take their meaning from the sum subscribed, the number of books already accumulated, and the additional publications that sum will purchase. With all these recommendations it may then be safely submitted to the candour of the subscribers, as well as to their sense of their own interests, whether they will, by the trifling addition of nine shillings a year, secure to themselves the advantages we have enumerated, or whether, in defiance of reason and of those interests, they will shut their eyes upon the inevitable consequence of the increased expence occasioned by the increase of their property, and abandon the child of their care and delight to a premature dissolution. We have better hopes of the good sense of our fellow citizens, and we shall continue to believe, that they will cordially co-operate to preserve to the county and city this excellent and this cheap source of entertainment and instruction, and to give it the renovation, which promises so much of both for the future.

Without the addition, it is not to be concealed or glossed over, the Public Library will lose its efficacy and attraction, and will die a lingering death. With the addition, it will revive, will flourish and continue to extend the circle of its greatly beneficial agency in promoting knowledgeable and happiness as the derivative of knowledge to multitudes (for the subscribers are units representing families) who in the event of its dissolution, will be deprived of this cheap and excellent source of gratification and improvement.”

One of the other reasons I’ve typed this article up from 200 years ago is just how measured, sensible and controlled the local media were. I can’t imagine a story of such clarity and understanding appearing in the EDP today, there’s something perhaps alarming that all this time on the quality of debate in the printed media has fallen. The logic behind the article made sense and it’s clear that the editor of the newspaper was aware of how important libraries were and how they needed to extend their reach. That of course happened with later legislation requiring councils to provide free public libraries, but this wouldn’t have felt inevitable at the time. Finally, thank goodness for the public libraries of Norwich.