For many years I have been a fan of the writer D E Stevenson. Her Wikipedia entry begins this way:
D. E. Stevenson (1892–1973) — married name Dorothy Emily Peploe — was a Scottish author of light romantic novels. Her father was the lighthouse engineer David Alan Stevenson, first cousin to the author Robert Louis Stevenson.
I first discovered DE because my mother had several books by her, and I would read anything at the time. I became quite addicted because she wrote about people and worlds that I could identify with. Then, visiting Edinburgh and the Scottish border country, I saw that she had captured those worlds in a very real way.
After she died in 1973 her books went out of fashion. It wasn't just that she had stopped writing, but fashions had shifted. Quite quickly, the only places you could find her books were in the large print sections of public libraries, and then in ever diminishing quantities as librarians cleaned out their stocks of less popular books.
Over eleven years ago I found a joined an on-line discussion group about her books and have been a member ever since. This is quite a big group, 335 members nearly all female, and also an active one - 226 posts so far this February. Time prevents me from participating actively, but I still read all the posts. Partially as a consequence of the group, her books have begun to come back into print.
Over the years, I have got to know the group quite well. I have been through births, deaths, marriages and divorces. I have travelled the world past and present with group members.
Many of the groups are librarians, ex-librarians or children of librarians. In my case, my mother went through the first ever training course for librarians in NSW, while her father as NSW Minister for Education actually played a role in the establishment of the public library system as we know it in NSW today.
Over recent months, the posts have recorded people's distress at what they see as the contraction, even collapse, of the public library systems especially in the UK and US. This is not big picture stuff of the type that makes the newspapers. This is an on-ground record of distress; of centralisation of UK library services so that older people cannot properly access them because transport is too difficult and to expensive; of the application of 300 over qualified people for a single lower level job because the jobs that they might expect to go for have gone; of books being thrown out.
One man, Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), was responsible more than any other for the development of public libraries in the UK, US, Canada and Australia.
Carnegie did not believe in the current concept of user pays. A self-made man who had amassed a huge fortune, he saw libraries as a vehicle whereby the ordinary working man could educate himself. That man might not have wealth, might not be able to afford education, but a free public library gave him the scope to advance himself because he could access the knowledge of the world.
Carnegie endowed his first library in Dunfermline in 1880. After his death, the foundation he established continued his work. The establishment of the public libraries in Australia in the 1930s were supported by the Carnegie Foundation. The various movement that campaigned for public libraries were called the Free Library Movements.
For the life of me, I struggle to understand how we can sometimes accept the unwinding of institutions that contribute to equality and which form the very foundation of what is today called a civil society in the name of efficiency and effectiveness narrowly defined.
I am not suggesting that Australian public libraries face the same level of threat. I am suggesting that the same type of pressures exist here.
On the New England History blog I posted my biography of my grandfather. I will pull out the section in that on the establishment of the public library system in NSW, and the supporting references, and post it here. I think the story is worth remembering.