Parliamentary Culture and Library History in Britain

Since autumn 2021, we have been working with the University of Oxford and the Centre for Intellectual History at the University of Oxford to put together series of blogs that explore European Parliamentary Culture. The series, built around the ‘Recovering Europe’s Parliamentary Culture, 1500-1700’ project, is focused on the Early Modern period, but blogs have ranged more widely, seeking to bring in some scholars of the more recent past to provide different perspectives and insights that might stimulate new thinking. We’re reposting some of the blogs here, with thanks to the CIH and to our colleagues who have commissioned, edited and authored the blogs.

This week the Recovering Europe’s Parliamentary Culture project is hosting an international conference at Jagiellonian University, Krakow, discussing ‘Concepts, Methods & Approaches’. Registration has now closed, but you can follow the conference on the CIH website and via the Parliamentary Culture, 1500-1700 twitter page.

This blog was originally published on 7 January 2022, written by Max Skjönsberg & Mark Towsey.

How did provincial men and women in the early modern period (roughly from 1600 until 1800) experience parliamentary culture? The history of the ‘public sphere’ will direct us towards pamphlet literature and newspapers in coffee houses and taverns. A different eighteenth-century institution which has received less attention – but one that became increasingly important for allowing the middling sort to educate themselves about politics, debates and political institution – was the subscription library.

The Lending Library, by Isaac Cruikshank, between 1800 and 1811

Inspired on the one hand by rising literacy rates and the increasing cultural capital of reading amongst the middling sort, and on the other by the continuing high price of new books, the subscription library was essentially a book club which allowed members to pool their resources to acquire a larger permanent collection of books than any of them could afford individually. As we shall see, these collections often included parliamentary records and history.

Certain kinds of library were already reasonably familiar in British towns of the mid eighteenth century. The earliest ‘public’ libraries were founded in Norwich in 1608, Ipswich in 1612 and in Bristol in 1613, the latter in a building donated to the city for the purpose by Bristol merchant Robert Redwood and supplemented subsequently by books bequeathed by Bristol-born Tobias Mathew, Archbishop of York. Founded generally by philanthropists, these early “public libraries” aimed to preserve knowledge and make it publicly available to scholars and clergymen – but with little expectation that ordinary people would have any desire or need to use their books. Elsewhere, books could be read in situ – and occasionally borrowed – from several Cathedral libraries, while commercial book lending (initially from coffee shops and taverns, and increasingly from formal ‘circulating libraries’ run by booksellers on a profit) was also becoming a familiar – and not uncontroversial – part of the urban book scene in the early decades of the eighteenth century. The subscription library model was fundamentally different to existing models.

Whereas the choice of books – and the means of accessing them – was generally controlled at other types of library by a single individual (by the philanthropist responsible for endowing a public library, for example, or the bookseller operated a commercial circulating library for profit), these decisions at the subscription library, crucially, lay in the hands of subscribers, who determined the rules of the institution, its membership fees, opening hours and acquisitions policies on a collective basis.

The library room at the Athenaeum in Liverpool

The subscription library model was first pioneered in Philadelphia in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin’s famous ‘Junto’ debating club as a pragmatic solution to the practical difficulties of accessing new books in a colonial city far from the centre of British book publishing in London. This model proved a great success on the colonial seaboard, before spreading first to the Scottish Borders, and then to the rapidly growing industrial towns of northern England. The first formal subscription library in Liverpool was founded in 1758, followed by similar libraries founded in Warrington (1760), Carlisle, Halifax and Leeds (all 1768), Macclesfield (1770), Sheffield (1771), and Bristol (1772/3). Some were exceptionally exclusive social institutions, charging prohibitively high subscription fees and blackballing undesirable prospective members, but many more encouraged members from quite far down the social scale – so that we can occasionally access through their records the reading lives of tailors, millers, students, artisans, and bakers, as well as wealthier members of the landholding, mercantile, or professional elites. And while the merchants and manufacturers who tended to lead libraries were sometimes fabulously wealthy, they often lacked formal education, and may indeed have been the first generation of readers of books in their families. Most subscription libraries also had a smaller number of female members.

The connection between subscription libraries and parliamentary culture extends to both books and people….

To continue reading this blog on the University of Oxford Centre for Intellectual History’s website, click here.

Max Skjönsberg

Mark Towsey

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