Bust of John Passmore Edwards

The Autobiography of John Passmore Edwards

Public Libraries


10 When I was a boy I should have jumped with joy if I could have found a corner in a reading-room for an hour or two a day, or have been enabled to take books home as boys and girls can do now where public libraries exist. A majority of people cannot say, with Prospero in the Tempest "My library was dukedom large enough." They might, however, and ought to, be able to participate in the advantages of a library created and maintained by public action.
  As I did a little in the Press in co-operation with William Ewart, the author and chief promoter of the Free Libraries Act in Parliament, it was only fit and proper, forty or fifty years afterwards, when I had means and the disposition, that I should encourage the public library movement. It is regrettable, after so many years and so much general prosperity, that so little, comparatively, has been done to provide such libraries; and what has been done has, in very many cases, been accomplished in the face of organised opposition-an opposition largely inspired and assisted by the public-house.
It is different in the United States. Mr. Choate, their deservedly popular Ambassador in this country, in his address on education at Oxford in August, 1903, said "At the beginning of the last century there were only twenty-six colleges and universities in the whole of the territory of the United States, and many of these were in an infant and undeveloped state. They are now numbered literally by hundreds, bringing the higher education home to the people everywhere." He also said: "In Massachusetts not even a Carnegie Library is to be found. In that State, which consists of three hundred and fifty townships, all but five have established, each for itself, a free library, open to the use of all citizens, and maintained at the public expense." There are, in fact, almost as many public libraries in a single State in America as we have altogether, after fifty years of effort, in this country! Mr. Whitelaw Reid, the successor of Mr. Choate, in a speech a few days after his arrival in this country, said: "The city and State of New York spend on free education from taxation funds five times more than was spent in the whole administration of justice." This being so, it is not surprising that the United States should be leaving us behind in the intellectual and industrial race. Public libraries are, in my opinion, entitled to public support because they are educative, recreative, and useful; because they bring the products of research and imagination, and the stored wisdom of ages and nations, within the easy reach of the poorest citizens ; because they distribute without curtailing the intellectual wealth of the world; because they encourage seekers after technical knowledge, and thereby promote industrial improvement; because, being under the public eye, they are economically conducted ; because they teach equality of citizenship, and are essentially democratic in spirit and action, in as much as they are maintained out of the public rates and subject to public control. All may not use them, but all may do so if they like; and as they are means of instructing and improving some, all are directly or indirectly benefited by them. Nothing, therefore, has given me more satisfaction than to have been able to provide public library buildings at Whitechapel, Shoreditch, Hoxton, Edmonton, Walworth, Hammersmith, East Dulwich, St. George's-in-the-East, Acton, Poplar, Limehouse, Nunhead, East Ham, Plaistow, North Camberwell, Newton Abbot, Truro, 11 Falmouth, Camborne, Redruth, St. Ives, Bodmin, Liskeard, and Launceston.
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April 18, 2005
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© Dean Evans 2003