Educate first, agitate afterwards: British Working Class Libraries


Scottish Working Class Libraries
English Working Class Libraries
British Working Class Reading Habits: A Conservative Canon
The Forgotten Ones: Women in the British Working Class Libraries
Why Working Class Libraries Matter?
Reflective Paper

Introduction     (Return to top)

“Educate first, agitate afterwards. Ignorance, superstition and temerity are the weapons which, our oppressors have used most effectively against us in the past. Secure an education at any cost” (Our Times, 40: 2001). The Canadian labour movement, middle class reformers and advocates of public education imported in the idea of Mechanics’ Institutes into Canada from Great Britain. The Mechanics’ Institutes opened libraries and reading rooms open to the working classes especially in industrial cities of Montreal and Hamilton (Our Times, 40: 2001). For book historians most of the academic research on working class libraries has been done in Great Britain and little research on Canadian working class libraries.

Scottish Working Class Libraries     (Return to top)

For British book historian, Jonathan Rose traces the development of Mechanics’ Institutes as far back as 1731 mutual improvement libraries among the Scottish working libraries (Rose, 59: 2001). Rose noted that most of these libraries existed in towns with population of less than 10,000 in the Scottish Lowlands. These early lending libraries charged low annual subscriptions of six shillings or less. Unlike middle class and upper class dominated mutual aid societies, the Scottish working class libraries were democratically run without interference of the above chattering classes. One of the chief reasons for the success of the Scottish working class libraries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the high literacy rate at 74 percent for weavers and 94 percent for wrights. A second factor was the need for weavers to be literate for their professional work and mining companies wanted a literate labour force. A third reason was that both professions were well-paid and held regular work hours. Fourth factor was the history of a stable populations and belief in working class independence though among the Scottish Lowlands. (Rose, 59: 2001)

Rose missed another reason for high literacy and reading among weavers As mentioned in our class, History of the Book, the repetitive nature of weaving allowed the weavers to place book on the loom and read while working, few professions at the time had that luxury or do so today (Fraser 2001).

The first political working class mutual aid organization—London Corresponding Society (LCS), purchased books and held weekly reading and discussion groups with a philosophy of “moral” self-improvement. LCS was organized democratically with a rotating chair and open discussion on each of the chapters read. Each participant could only speak once until each man had to a chance to be engaged in the discussion (Rose, 62: 2001). [Few women were allowed into mutual aid society, as education for women was discouraged due to sexist attitudes.]

As radical tailor Francis Place, noted in his autobiography LCS distracted workingmen from less intellectual diversions and improved manners among the working classes. “It induced men to read books, instead of wasting their time in public houses, it taught them to respect themselves, and to desire to educate their children. It evaluated them in their own opinions. It taught them the great moral lesson ‘to bear and forebear.” Place, who was also a noted political radical observed the importance of debate and discussion within the LCS (Rose, 62: 2001).

“The discussions in the divisions, in the Sunday evening readings, and in the small debating meetings, opened to them views which they had never before taken. They were compelled by these discussions to find reasons for their opinions, and to tolerate others. It gave a new stimulus to an immense number of men who had been in too many instances incapable of any but the grossest pursuits, and in seeking nothing beyond mere sensual enjoyments. It elevated them in society” (Rose, 62: 2001).

The middle classes often viewed the working class mutual aid associations as hotbeds of radicalism as noted by an Uxbridge carpenter during the time of First Reform Bill of 1832; was a grain of truth to fear the revolutionary potentialities of the mechanics’ institutes. “The mechanics’ institute gradually degenerated into violent revolutionary club. The door was locked, the passages watched, the most inflammatory and seditious things were read and discussed, and most of the men at once on the local bank. Collections were frequent to meet the expenses of trials which were taking place all over the country. One of these meetings had been held far into the night. The following morning all the shops closed and the militia were on the pavement. ”

To combat the subversive revolutionary possibilities of the mechanics’ institutes middle eighteenth-century political reformers established adult schools and reading rooms. Most of these individuals were not from the working class, but rather were members of a paternalistic middle class (Rose, 63: 2001).

The idea of the working class radicalism in the economic sphere but conservatism in social sphere, especially in reading materials was not new according to Rose. The Scottish working class libraries of the Lowlands often collected only classical literature and were strongly influenced by the newly established Free Church of Scotland and the rising Temperance movement (Rose, 61: 2001).

English Working Class Libraries     (Return to top)

The town of Carlisle, England with a population of 25,000 saw the establishment of twenty-four reading rooms between 1836 and 1854 circulating 4,000 volumes among their 14,000 members. The reading rooms were staffed by volunteer teachers or members of the reading rooms who taught reading, writing and math assisting increasing literacy among the working class. One reason for the success of the Carlisle reading rooms was the presence of numerous handloom weavers in the town. The passage of the 1870 Education Act increased the number of working class in one parish who could sign their marriage register from 70.36 percent in 1841 to high of 92.69 percent in 1871 (Rose, 65: 2001).

However, Thomas Frost, a radical journalist who was influenced by the ideals of the utopian socialist Robert Owen, observed that the reason many of the middle class paternalistic reading rooms in working class neighbourhoods failed was that: “Working men do not like to be treated like children, to have the books they shall read chosen for them; and they naturally resent any attempt to set up barriers between themselves and other classes, when all are associated on the same footing for a common object.” (Rose, 65: 2001)

Working class supported reading rooms were open to economic downturns and needed to solicit funds from the middle class and upper class financial patronage. This was best exemplified by the Carlisle’s Lord Street Working Men’s Reading Room founded by fifty men to purchase newspapers and discuss the 1848 revolutions in Europe. A low subscription rate of one pence a week and (free for the unemployed) gaining new members drawn to its large lending library, discussion groups and classes. By 1849 the Lord Street Working Men’s Reading Room had over 500 books and 300 members in a small-borrowed schoolroom. (Rose, 65-66: 2001)

When the Lord Street Working Men’s Reading Room moved into a new building in 1851, congratulatory messages were received from literacy giants, Thomas Carlyle and from the most popular author among the working classes, Charles Dickens. The high cost of construction for at three hundred and ninety-three pounds, low interest loans and donated services of an architect alienated the Lord Street Working Men’s Reading Room from its original working class base. When a rule banning controversial political and religious materials was passed, the former flourishing Lord Street Working Men’s Reading Room was dormant by 1863 (Rose, 65-66: 2001).

The growing labour unions and rising co-operative movement leaders were heavily influenced by Samuel Smiles book’s Self-Help published in 1859, a collection of his lectures he delivered fourteen years earlier. By the turn of the century Self-Help sold over 250,000 copies and was translated into numerous languages. As a successful author Smiles favoured universal suffrage, admired to the goals and ideals of Chartism and was sympathetic for labour’s call for a ten-hour workday. For him the working classes could rise above their station in life through co-operative efforts and the ideals of self-help and self-improvement. George Gregory, a miner recalls the influence of Self-Help stories of self-made men who arose phoenix-like out of despair and found success. Gregory recalls “I began to see myself as an individual, and how I may be able to a break from the general situation of which I had regarded myself as an inseparable part. I realized that my lack of education was decisive of what I might become, so I commenced to reach out into the future” (Rose, 69: 2001).

Gregory remained a miner for most his working life although through self-education he had gained a diploma in Mining Engineering and Surveying. He feared losing his class-consciousness by joining the middle class, and by rising above his working class roots might even became a Tory. Gregory remained a miner, trade union organizer, a committed socialist, a co-operative manager, an anti-war activist, Congregational minister and proud owner of over one thousand books (Rose, 7: 2001).

British Working Class Reading Habits: A Conservative Canon      (Return to top)

Rose’s research on reading habits shows a cultural lag in the literary tastes of the British working classes compared to the more avant-garde preferences among the middle classes. He called this phenomenon a conservative canon (Rose, 98: 1998). The high cost of new books and literary journals meant most working class readers purchased their books from second-hand bookstores. In a capitalist economy the wealthy can outspend the economically disadvantaged in book marketplace. The launching of Everyman’s Library in 1906 by Joseph M. Dent offered inexpensive classics at the low cost of one shilling. The American Modern Library also offered inexpensive volumes for the masses but its emphasised was on modern and contemporary American authors.

The Everyman’s Library offerings were by dead authors like Swift, Pope, Fielding, Richardson, Smollett, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Keats, Byron, Shelley and Dickens. Joseph Keating, a collier from South Wales noted “Volumes by living authors were too high-priced for me”. Furthermore Keating observed in his schooling “Our school-books never mentioned living writers, and the impression in my mind that an author, to be a living author, must be dead; and that his work was all the better if he died of neglect and starvation. (Rose, 99: 1998).

The conservative literary tendencies among the working classes can be traced to the working class libraries of the Scottish Lowlands that banned all fiction until the commercial success of Scottish poet, Sir Walter Scott changed their minds. The remoteness of the mining town of Leadhills had a reputation for hard drinking, violence and fighting and in the major employer, Scots Mines Company arrived a one James Stirling who managed the company from 1734 to 1770. He introduced many social reforms to control miners’ lives both underground and aboveground. Stirling introduced several innovative programs including an old age pensions, sickness benefits, shortening of the workday to six hours a day, six days a week, shortening of the ale house hours in the town, introduction of a on site surgeon and a school master to educate the miners’ children and finally a company funded library. This library was founded April 15, 1743 and survived until 1902 (Crawford, 50-51: 1996).

Stirling was a trained mathematician and due to his Jacobite tendencies, he was restricted from a career in academia. Stirling was a firm believer in the ideals of the Scottish Enlightenment and mutual improvement. As the library preamble of 1743 states: “We, Subscribers, having agreed to form ourselves into a SOCIETY, in order to purchase a Collection of Books, for our mutual Improvement, did …condescend upon certain ARTICLES, to be observed by us, for the Establishment and Regulation of this our Society"(Crawford, 54: 1996).

The Scots Mining Company Library also wanted to improve the moral character of the library members and governed its member's behaviour inside the library walls as found in Rule 33.

“MEMBERS guilty of any Indecency or unruly obstinate behaviour, at any of the Society’s Meetings, or who shall … offer any Indignity to the Society, shall be punished by Fine, Suspension or Exclusion, as the Society shall judge the nature of the Transgression in to require” (Crawford, 54: 1996).

Dugald Stewart, a professor of Moral Philosophy at University of Edinburgh viewed the use of working class libraries to produce upright moral workers who would be introduced to the useful knowledge and fight threats of radicalism and revolutionary activity among the small and emerging trade union movement in Scotland (Crawford, 60: 1996).

“Wherever the lower orders enjoy the benefits of education, they will be found to be comparatively sober and industrious; and in many instances, the establishment of a small library in the neighourhood of a manufactury, has been known to produce a sensible and rapid improvement in the morals of the work people. The cultivation of mind, to which books communicate, naturally inspires that desire and hope of advancement, which, in all the classes of society, is the most steady and powerful motive to economy and industry” (Crawford, 60: 1996).

The weavers of Fenwick, who founded the Fenwick Library in 1808 saw the values of mutual aid and a historical perspective of the institution for purchase of individual books, this arose out of the success of the older fraternal organization, the Fenwick Weavers’ Society, which was well known for its innovate purchase of foodstuff and reselling to members cheaply in 1761 (Crawford, 9: 2002).

“Everything which has a tendency to improve the condition of man claims his cordial regard. For this end nothing can be better calculated than a Library adapted to the habits and various pursuits of the community where it is established. The utility of such institutions has happily been long acknowledged in Scotland; and to the diffusion of knowledge, of which they have been not the least considerable instruments, we are indebted, under God, for great part of that light and liberty which we enjoy. The pleasure which results from the perusal of well selected books, is often of the highest kind” (Crawford, 9: 2002).

For subject matter most of the Scottish working class libraries avoided fiction and literature as statistics showed the slow rising from a paltry three point percent in 1767 to moderate level of eight percent by 1800. Dominant library books were history or religion making up fifty percent of the collection. The Leadhills Library miners were strongly influenced by rising Evangelical movement and many of the miners converted to the newly established Free Church of Scotland in 1843. Crawford concludes his paper with the note that Scotland was first country in the world to enact national policy on libraries with the passing of the Public Libraries Act of 1867 (Crawford, 10-11: 2002).

The Forgotten Ones: Women in the British Working Class Libraries      (Return to top)

Information on the role of women in the working class libraries is scarce and under researched by labour historians. In the Scottish working class libraries zero to ten percent of members were women and none of the libraries allowed women into positions of governance. The conservative Leadhills library barred women until 1881 although women could read books borrowed by their male relatives that were members of the institution. The 1851 census revealed only nine percent of the mechanics’ institute’s membership were female and the majority of those in the middle class neighbourhoods as compared to working class neighbourhoods. By 1857 the counties of Lancashire and Cheshire had over 100 mutual aid societies and mechanics’ institutes with 19,880 men and only 2,150 women (Rose, 76: 2001).

The majority of working men of in the nineteenth century believed that a woman’s place was in the home and not in the mechanics’ institutes or in the library. Ironically as the profession of librarianship developing in Britain and in the United States a few decades later would a mostly female dominated occupation.

The change in societal attitudes towards the education of women in the middle of the nineteenth century was strongest in co-operative movements and in mutual aid societies allied with the Methodist Church. By late the 1870s twenty of the twenty-seven mutual improvement societies run by the Methodists in London allowed full female participation. Deborah Smith, a weaver from Nelson was elected to the position of secretary of the Nelson Women’s Co-operative Guild despite not being able to read or write. In overcoming her illiteracy she reflected on the Guild’s meetings and lectures. “[It] opened up a new life to me …I got new ideas, a wider view of life. It taught me to think for myself on all questions” (Rose, 77: 2001).

Why Working Class Libraries Matter?     (Return to top)

Why is the study of working class libraries important in this day and age of the Internet, information overload and public libraries. The answer is best supplied by the working document of the Ulster People’s College of Belfast:

“The study of people’s history can change the focus of history from the powerful to the working class, the underprivileged and those struggling to change society. It can open up new areas for inquiry and take up issues normally ignored by conventional historians: e.g. the non-unionised, the poorly paid, the role of women in society, and political and social conflict from the point of view of the workers” (Ulster, 8: 1987).

Conclusion     (Return to top)

Today’s working classes have pastimes and entertainment industries competing with the use of the libraries, like movies, sport events, concerts, television and radio to name a few. The general public is getting use to the fact having to pay for videotapes, compact discs, books and other items available free at the library. Will the taxpayers want to continue to subsidizing library services they rarely use, if the average family can rent a video, CD, or DVD private asks Fred Lerner about the future of the public library (Lerner, 209: 1998)?

Will working class libraries make a comeback since taxpayer-supported public libraries compete with private sector businesses of bookstores, video stores and music stores? There is also the threat of privatization of public libraries under the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). A private sector information provider could demands the same amount of subsidies the taxpayer-supported libraries receive from government as GATS demand all service providers have to compete on level playing field. Or government would be forced to cut all funding to public libraries and public libraries would institute a cost recovering on each item borrowed (Hunt: 2001).

The majority of Canadians are in the working class, since most of us have to work for a living, even well paid professionals like doctors and lawyers. Most Canadians are educated; maybe it time to return to labour call of returning to agitation for alternatives to our customer-based society.

References     (Return to top)

Crawford, John. “The community library in Scottish history” 68th IFLA Council and General Conference Papers Website, August 18-24, 2002 p. 1-11. 6 Dec 2002

Crawford, John. “The ideology of mutual improvement in Scottish working class libraries” Library History v. 12 no. 1, 1996 p. 49-62.

Fraser, Andrew S. LIS 586 Class notes. 19th Century Book Trade. 25 Nov. 2002

Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA handbook for writers of research papers. 5th ed., New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1999.

Hunt, Fiona. “The WTO and the Threat to Libraries” Progressive Librarian no. 18 Summer 2001 6 Dec 2002

Lerner, Fred. The story of libraries: from the invention of writing to the computer age. New York: Continuum, 1998.

Our Times excerpt “A Quest for Learning: the Canadian Labour Movement and Worker Literacy Education.” Our Times v. 20 no. 4, Aug/Sept. 2001 p. 40-43.

Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2001.

Rose, Jonathan. “A Conservative Canon: Cultural Lag in British Working-Class Reading Habits” Libraries and Culture v. 33 no.1 Winter 1998 p. 98-104.

Ulster Peoples College. People’s History Conference Report February 1987 Belfast, Northern Ireland: Ulster Peoples College, 1987.

Reflective Paper     (Return to top)

One of the reasons I chose to place this paper up on the Internet is the subject of class is rarely talked about in our North American society. Public libraries and to a lesser extent the academic libraries allow access to the collective knowledge of humankind. We have become mass customers of goods, including ideas, and have forgotten how to be citizens. Of in the words of American activist, Ralph Nader stated at his recent lecture at University of Alberta on September 13, 2002 "We have grown up corporate and have forgotten how to be active as citizens within a civic society." We all like to think we are ‘middle class’. If you have to work for a pay cheque to survive day to day, then you are a member of the working class. Eighty-five percent of the world is working class.

Ideally the library is one of the few places in society where one’s income or class background is NOT relative since librarians should serve information needs of the resident of the inner city with equal professionalism as given to the member of the ‘ruling’ elite. Public libraries could be threatened by the trade agreements like the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), and the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). These agreements see every institutional transaction as potential commodity including the exchange between a library patron and a librarian. WTO, FTAA, GATS and TRIPS further the gap between the information ‘rich’ and the information ‘poor’.

As Article 27 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he or she is the author.

Can the free Internet training services given to a library patron be a threat to for profit computer companies? Libraries need to be protected from the trade agreements as ‘core’ public services or goods not open to private sector ownership. Those who fail to understand the past will fail to understand the future. After the years of struggle found in the British Working Class Libraries we as citizens of the world demand no less.

Andrew Fraser
LIS 586: History of the Book
School of Library and Information Studies, University of Alberta
Originally prepared December 2002
Revised April 2003 for MLIS Capping Exercise

Last updated on April 22, 2003