Development of Working-Class Libraries

Beginning with the first library for the working class in Scotland in 1741 and influenced by increased popular education and the rise of a free press, libraries founded by and for the British working class thrived into the nineteenth century, satisfying reading interests and tastes before the rise of free public libraries.

Summary of Event

A number of important changes in Great Britain in the eighteenth century led to a demand for secular literature. These changes included increased provisions for education, the growth of reading publications, and increased interest in reading. The old town and parish libraries could not satisfy the needs created by these changes, so two new kinds of subscription libraries—private and commercial—were developed to provide reading materials for different social classes. Starting with four in Scotland and two in England, the private libraries founded for and by the working class continued to grow during the nineteenth century but gradually gave way to an increasing number of free public libraries. Libraries;in Great Britain[Great Britain]
Great Britain;libraries
[kw]Development of Working-Class Libraries (19th cent.)
[kw]Working-Class Libraries, Development of (19th cent.)
[kw]Libraries, Development of Working-Class (19th cent.)
Libraries;in Great Britain[Great Britain]
Great Britain;libraries
[g]Great Britain;19th cent.: Development of Working-Class Libraries[0020]
[c]Literature;19th cent.: Development of Working-Class Libraries[0020]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;19th cent.: Development of Working-Class Libraries[0020]
[c]Education;19th cent.: Development of Working-Class Libraries[0020]
[c]Organizations and institutions;19th cent.: Development of Working-Class Libraries[0020]
Stirling, James
Place, Francis
Holyoake, George Jacob
Gaskell, Elizabeth

The library that came into being at Leadhills in Lanarkshire, Scotland, became the first private subscription library and the first library for the working class in Great Britain. The Leadhills Reading Society, as the library was originally called, was founded in 1741 by the lead miners of the Scots Mines Company. Of the twenty-three founding members, all were miners except the minister and the schoolmaster. James Stirling, Stirling, James mines manager, was often credited with helping establish the library. Supported by members’ subscription fees (6 shillings), the library provided readings not only for leisure but also for serious study. The next three libraries also were founded in Scotland: First founded was the Wanlockhead library (a carbon copy of the Leadhills library) by the lead miners in Dumfriesshire in 1756. The Westerkirk library was founded by the antimony miners, also in Dumfriesshire, in 1792. The Langloan library was founded by the weavers and other working men in Lanarkshire in 1794. The first two working-class libraries in England were the Economical Library at Kendal (1797) and the Artizans’ Library at Birmingham Birmingham, England;libraries (1799). The former, designed for the use and instruction of the working class, proved useless. The latter, Artizans’, was originally a Sunday school library.

During the nineteenth century, tradesmen, mechanics, and artisans founded a number of libraries, the best known being the Edinburgh Mechanics’ Subscription Library, which formed in 1825. The Edinburgh Mechanics’ Institute, originally called the Edinburgh School of Arts, provided vocational instruction for the working class. The subscription library was founded by three members of the school who wished to pursue their studies even when the school was closed in the summer. In England, libraries for mechanics and apprentices were founded at Liverpool (1823), Sheffield (1823), Kendal (1824), and Durham (1851). The Liverpool and Sheffield libraries owed their origins to the editors of the Liverpool Mercury and the Sheffield Independent, respectively. A number of smaller working-class libraries existed, but without a distinguishing title.

The Edinburgh Mechanics’ Subscription Library could be considered the first of a group of libraries associated with the mechanics’ institutes. Started in the 1820’s, the institutes were focused on improving working-class adult education. Social reformers such as Francis Place Place, Francis and George Jacob Holyoake Holyoake, George Jacob were active in promoting these institutes, believing that the institutes could serve as instruments of emancipation for the working class in their demand for social and political reform. From Edinburgh and London, the mechanics’ institutes spread to the industrial areas of the north of England, the midlands, south Wales, and central Scotland. The growing economic importance of many provinces such as Liverpool, Manchester Manchester, England;libraries , and Glasgow was a direct result of the Industrial Revolution. By 1850, there were about seven hundred mechanics’ institutes, with fifty in, mostly, the Forth-Clyde area in Scotland. The libraries at these institutes had holdings of 655,000 volumes. The largest library was at Liverpool (15,300 volumes), followed by Manchester (13,000 volumes).

Finally, certain factories and firms opened libraries for their workers. One of the best factory libraries was founded for the mill workers at W. & D. Morris factories at Chorlton-on-Medlock in Manchester in 1845. A library was founded in the Fieldhouse Institute by John Bright and Brothers at Rochdale in 1832. Still another one was established at Ipswich in 1856 for the workers of the foundry of Messrs. Ransomes and May. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Gaskell, Elizabeth novel Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848) inspired the founding of factory libraries in Manchester in 1849. According to the book, working men in the manufacturing districts of Lancashire displayed real interest in book use.

Book selection at the working-class libraries reflected the social, political, and cultural influences before and during the nineteenth century, notably the lapse of government censorship Censorship;British and the movement for inexpensive literature. As in most of Europe, the press in Great Britain in the eighteenth century was frequently subjected to strict censorship. John Milton’s plea for freedom of the press in 1644 contributed to the final lapse of the Licensing Act in 1694. As an independent press emerged during the nineteenth century, censorship gradually yielded to the demand for a free press. Additionally, born out of the Reform Act of 1832—a landmark in the turn to inexpensive publishing—a new movement provided literature that was free from religious and other propaganda at a price affordable to the working classes.

The working-class libraries were not interested in acquiring fiction and serial literature in the beginning of the century. The working people’s enthusiasm for controversial religion was a major motivating factor in deciding which books to acquire. While working-class piety remained, dissident social behavior was nonetheless evident in a society influenced by moderate clergy and the patronage system. Because of the impact of the Enlightenment, the working people were interested more in social science than in vocational reading. Their preference for such socially scientific subjects as history, geography, biography, and politics reflected a change toward secular book use. About 50 percent of reading materials were works on history and religion, followed by biography and travel. The shift toward fiction by the end of the century marked the most notable change in book use and a new level of sophistication in reading.

The Scottish working class was conservative in its literary tendencies, so the libraries most often collected classical literature and were strongly influenced by the newly established Free Church of Scotland and the rising temperance movement Temperance movement;in Scotland[Scotland] . All fiction was excluded from the libraries until the commercial success of the Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott. His success influenced how books would be selected.

The working-class libraries originally relied on members’ subscription fees for their operations. For this reason, many were small and short-lived. Their success and failure largely depended on favorable circumstances or financial support from outside sources. The Leadhills, Wanlockhead, and Westerkirk libraries were founded in well-paid mining Mining;in England[England] communities. The Leadhills library was also supported by the local gentry. The Westerkirk library became a general library when the mining company there stopped its operations. The Liverpool Mechanics’ and Apprentices’ Library flourished under a management committee of wealthy supporters and donors. The library gradually faded with the appearance of free public libraries. A similar fate led to the slow demise of mechanics’ institute libraries. By the end of the nineteenth century, there remained about eighty-three working-class libraries, which survived mostly in large villages and market towns.


The development of the working-class libraries reflected a time of increasing popular education and increasing interest in book use. The libraries also helped educate the working classes in their demand for political and social reform. Side by side with the private libraries for the middle class and the clergy, the working-class libraries satisfied the growing needs for cheap and wholesome reading materials, which the government failed to provide. Finally, the working-class libraries in Scotland encouraged their patrons to participate in intellectual life and supported the rejection of a separate intellectual class.

Further Reading

  • Battles, Matthew. Library: An Unquiet History. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. A history of libraries as well as the forces in history that try to destroy information and communication.
  • Crawford, John. “The Ideology of Mutual Improvement in Scottish Working Class Libraries.” Library History 12, no. 1 (1996): 49-62. Contends that the Enlightenment and the idea of mutual improvement were at the core of the establishment of the Leadhills library.
  • Harris, Michael H. History of Libraries in the Western World. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1995. A general survey of library history, originally published in 1984.
  • Lerner, Fred. The Story of Libraries: From the Invention of Writing to the Computer Age. New York: Continuum, 1998. Explains how major societies used libraries and discusses how these societies were affected by the libraries they created and inherited.
  • Rose, Jonathan. “A Conservative Canon: Cultural Lag in British Working-Class Reading Habits.” Library and Culture 33, no. 1 (1998): 98-104. Explores the conservative literary tastes of the working people compared to the more avant-garde preference found among the middle classes.
  • Vincent, David. The Rise of Mass Literacy. Cambridge, England: Polity, 2000. Vincent examines how eighteenth century ideas about literacy and reading were practiced well into the nineteenth century.

Free Public School Movement

Social Reform Movement

British Parliament Passes the Reform Act of 1832

American Library Association Is Founded

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

William Edward Forster; Francis Place. Libraries;in Great Britain[Great Britain]
Great Britain;libraries