Garston Library (opened 1909)
Toxteth Library (opened 1902)
Kensington Library (opened 1890)
Liverpool has a proud place in the public library movement. It was a Liverpool-born (and Liverpool MP), William Ewart, who promoted the first Public Libraries Act in 1850, which led to the first public library opening in Duke Street (the building is still there although now used for commercial offices). In order to get the Bill through Parliament, William Ewart was forced to make an important compromise: only boroughs with populations of more than 10,000 would be allowed to open libraries.
Sir William Brown MP realised the Duke Street building was inadequate and personally funded the entire cost of the Brown Library, which he opened in 1860 on Shaw’s Brow (now William Brown Street). The new library attracted magnificent donations, including the famous art library of Hugh Frederick Hornby.
Liverpool did not rest on its laurels and its pioneering library work continued. Books were loaned to prisons in 1853 – anticipating the prison library service and this was followed by book loans to hospitals (1856), books to the blind (1857) and music being issued (1859). Branch libraries were opened in Everton (1853) and Toxteth (1853).
The rate that boroughs could charge for libraries was increased to one penny in 1855 but it was not enough for councils to fund new libraries, and the growth of libraries was heavily dependent on the donations of philanthropists. In Liverpool’s case, Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-born steel magnate, personally funded six branch libraries – Sefton Park, Walton, West Derby, Garston, Kirkdale and Old Swan. Without his help, libraries in Liverpool would have made no progress until after 1919, when the penny rate was lifted.
The three libraries illustrated above were all designed by the talented Corporation Surveyor, Thomas Shelmerdine, whose motto was ‘modernise everything’. His work includes the Bridewell at Kirkdale, the Fire Station at Hatton Garden, Lister Road public baths, parts of Fazakerley hospital and the Hornby Library (within the William Brown Library). The opening of the rebuilt William Brown Library next year will show once again how much the city still values its libraries as a crucial part of its cultural and educational life.