7 July 2013

The Birmingham Library: A Ticket to Knowledge

Leading up to the anniversary of the Priestley Riots, which occurred in Birmingham from 14th July to 17th July 1791, an exploration of the Birmingham Library in which Dr. Joseph Priestley was involved.

The Birmingham Library was not the first in the town, but was the first that opened up the world of knowledge to a wider section of society. The establishment was set up in 1779 by 19 men, all but one of whom were religious Dissenters, already open to inquiry. To join the library members paid a guinea (21 shillings), and then, from 1781, paid a further eight shillings per year, so this was by no means learning for all, but it paved the way for the advancement of learning through the classes.**

When Joseph Priestley came to Birmingham in 1780 the library found an enthusiastic supporter, one who had competently helped build other such institutions already, and so its management was entrusted to him. The institution had great hopes for a freedom of learning, the initial principal put forward by Priestley being that 'this institution can never answer the purpose of party, civil or religious, but, on the contrary, may be expected to promote a spirit of liberality and friendship among all classes of men without distinction'.* He believed that controversial literature, even his own, should not be included among the books. By 1786 the library committee contained a mix of the original Dissenter groups, as well as a higher proportion from the Anglican church, but surprisingly it was the latter who pushed to have Priestley's books included in the library. John Money believes this to be a purposeful 'manoeuvre' which 'produced predictable results. The acquisition of Priestley’s work was attributed not to the cabal on the committee but to the Doctor [Priestley] himself and his friends, and it was followed by a series of ostentatious Anglican protests and resignations'.*** After this Priestley promoted that all books, including both his own and those that contradicted them, should be included. But differing opinions caused tension, and eventually rupture within the organisation; in 1794, the library split into two groups becoming the Old Library, which eventually moved to Union Street, and the New Library, which became located in Cannon Street.*

In 1796 it was decided that the library needed a purpose built building for its expanding collection, and William Hollins was chosen to design and build the structure, left (I will explore the architecture of the building in a separate post). The building opened late in 1797, and the rent of the land was paid for by a Tontine Deed drawn up at the beginning of 1798. Tontine meant that a number of subscribers would pay a subscription out of which the rent would be taken out and the excess reserved. Each subscriber could nominate either themselves or another individual to the Tontine and whoever survived the rest received the lump accumulated sum; this is why it was often very young children who were nominated. Nearly 180 individuals were nominated (with about 150 doing the nominating) for the library Tontine Deed (details and names of these can be seen here).

Above the library was carved 'AD MERCATURAM BONARTUM ARTIUM PROFECTUS, ET TIBI ET OMNIBUS DITESCES' translated as 'resorting to the mart of sciences, you will grow rich, both for yourself and others'. The library itself definitely grew and flourished; in 1784 it had owned about 900 books but in its new home in Union Street this rose to more like 7,000 by 1799.* The libraries that were established across many of the towns were a step towards providing education and learning to a wider section of the population. Among all the names nominated for the Tontine Deed, of people who lived in or near Birmingham, nearly a third were manufacturers, especially those in the button and metal trades, another third were merchants, one sixth were gentlemen and the other sixth were predominantly,what were deemed as, higher professions such as doctors, attorneys, bankers, artists and churchmen.* This was a move in the right direction in supplying learning to those who had been excluded from it previously.

ABOVE: Late Victorian Union Street, but still retaining its Georgian and Regency architecture. In 1845 the library had been extended to the left, as can be seen in the photograph.

* References on request.
Other sources are this article and **British History Online.
*** John Money, Experience and Identity: Birmingham and the West Midlands 1760 - 1800

Seal from library card, above.

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