Somethings do not change. In 1851 educational standards in Suffolk were low and libraries were inadequate compared with many other places. One hundred and sixty years later the situation remains very similar.
Suffolk county council was ranked close to the bottom of the table for library spending by English counties in 2010 (latest available figures) and GCSE results ranked the county as 121st out of 152 education authorities according to a report this year.
That, of course, was before library spending was cut further and the independent Suffolk’s Libraries IPS Ltd was set up by the council under a chairman, Clive Fox, who has yet to show the vision and leadership needed to provide a coherent library service.
I can make this 160 year comparison because of a remarkable book, Suffolk in the 19th Century, by John Glyde who had left school at the age of nine and, presumably, educated himself. He used the 1851 census as the basis for his book which includes a chapter on libraries. He wrote:
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 numerouss nor flourishing in this county.
He echoes a correspondent in Bungay which had no library, who described it as a “dark region”. “That Dark region… extends a long way over Suffolk”, Glyde writes. (I should say that today Bungay library has people determined to maintain it and a community which has built a serene garden by its entrance.)
In the middle of the 19th century Glyde shows that in the West Riding of Yorkshire there was one Literary Institute for every 867 persons: in Suffolk there was one to every 22,481.
The gap has narrowed but the latest figures show that North Yorkshire (there is no West Riding county now) spent £16.60 per person on libraries. Suffolk spent £12.80, a quarter less.
Libraries were not a matter for local government until the 1850 Libraries Act. Norwich was the first place to apply it. aThe value Norfolk continues to place on libraries is deployed in the splendid Millennium Library.
The general system through most of the 19th century was that there were subscription libraries, which were really only for the middle classes, and mechanics institutes, a movement to bring adult education and books to poorer people.
Our library system at present is, despite cuts, considerably better than that.
More than half the libraries in Suffolk in the middle of the 19th century were mechanics institutes. Only one, Ipswich Institute, survives; look for the stone doorway next to the Body Shop. That is where I found Glyde’s book, but there are two Suffolk Libraries copies available and a digitise copy is on Google Books.
Giving everyone the ability to delve back in history is one of the glories of our public libraries.
Glyde was worried not only by the lack of educational books available in Suffolk libraries but by the paucity of good fiction. He would have been shocked by the pile of discounted chick lit I saw being unpacked to fill the shelves of one Suffolk library recently.
The hopeful sign for Suffolk Libraries is that none are scheduled to close — unlike in many parts of England where doors are closing. A library which is not closed can be revived.
The IPS has a hard task with very little money. It is going to take passion and the support which so many communities throughout the county are showing to ensure that we have a library service we need in an age of information.
In Glyde’s work we see something of the passion for libraries in the middle of the 19th century which led to more being formed in the following years including one in Debenham.