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Suffolk libraries in the 19th century

Until this week I had never got around to finding out more about the house called the “Old Library” near where I live. It turns out it was once the home of the Debenham Mechanics Institute library and reading room.

Debenham Market Cross

Market Cross: home of Debenham's first library

But a little online research found mention that in the 1860s it found an early home in the Market Cross, the best known building in the village. Originally believed to be a market building it became a school in the 17th century and then lay empty in the mid-19th century after a new school had been built.

Debenham institute was one of many around England formed by people who believed that eduction was hugely important and access to books and papers was an essential part of that.

So, I found myself in Ipswich Institute, the only library of its kind remaining in Suffolk. And on the shelves John Glyde’s Suffolk in the 19th Century, had much to day about libraries. It is based on data from the 1851 census and it is no wonder Glyde was passionate about libraries: he had left school at the age of nine. It would be fascinating to know more about him.

This is how the chapter on Literary and Scientific Institutions starts:

WE have seen that Agricultural Suffolk is celebrated for Schools of inferior quality, and, as may be expected, institutions for carrying on the means of instruction among adults are neither numerous nor flourishing in this county. Newspapers and cheap publications have but a small circulation in Suffolk. The educative influence arising from the contact of mind with mind is denied to a scattered population, and the agricultural mind in this district lags in the rear of a large portion of England.

In 1851 Suffolk was a very different place, but in that last quoted sentence he echoes concern we have at present. The closing of rural libraries would deprive many of that “contact of mind”.

When he wrote there were 20 libraries in Suffolk: Beccles, Bures, Bury (2) Clare, Framlingham, Haverhill,  Ipswich (4), Leiston, Lowestoft, Melford, Needham, Stowmarket, Sudbury, Woodbridge and Yoxford.

At Debenham, he writes that an attempt had been made to form an institute, but Bungay, “to its disgrace, has no library for the people”.

Suffolk was not well provided and Glyde tells us:

By the Census Educational Report, we find in the West Riding of York, one Literary Institute to every 867 persons: in Suffolk there is one to every 22,481 persons.

These institute libraries were small and had very few women members. They required subscriptions and generally reached the already educated tradesmen and middle classes.

The chapter is fascinating with much detail including the numbers of members and books for each library as well as the subscription rates. I have scanned it and it can be downloaded here.

 

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