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The Birmingham Library

 Birmingham subscription library in Union Street

Two hundred and fifty years ago there was no universal education, and many people could not read. Of those who could, many could not afford books or newspapers - they were a luxury. But with changes in society and culture, people were starting to demand independent access to news, literature and contemporary ideas.

The Birmingham Library was founded in 1779 with nineteen members who were Nonconformists. Dr Joseph Priestley came to Birmingham in 1780. He had experience of organising a subscription library in Leeds, and wrote advertisements to promote the library. His aims were socially idealistic - this institution can never answer the purpose of party, civil or religious, but, on the contrary, may be expected to promote a spirit of liberality and friendship among all classes of men without distinction.

The Birmingham Library in Union Street

By 1781 the library was organised so that subscribers, for the payment of one guinea a year, could borrow one book and one pamphlet at a time. They would be fined if they returned these late. The library would be open from 2pm - 5pm every day except Sunday, a fire would be kept, and they could sit in the library and read the latest reviews. In addition members were to pay six shillings a year towards the purchase of books. The librarian would buy these, but members could make suggestions.

The library moved to purpose-built premises in Union Street in 1797.


 heron by Audubon

The 'New Library' was formed by Dissenters in the 1790s who were dissatisfied with the way in which the 'Old Library' was managed. The selection of books was under question; they objected to the partiality of the Committee, who would 'admit one description of books and ...exclude all others relating to certain disputed questions'. This was the time of the French Revolution and of the Priestley Riots in Birmingham. Obviously the committee of the Old Library felt the need to be cautious. The first general meeting of the New Library was held in 1796; subscribers present included Joseph and William Phipson, and William Cadbury. The New Library was originally in Cannon Street, and then moved to Temple Row West.

The heron, from Audubon's Birds of America

In 1860 the New Library amalgamated with the Old Library, and moved to Union Street. The Free Libraries Committee had been set up in this year. They were undoubtedly influenced by the aims and ideals of the Birmingham Library. Most of the Free Library Committee members were also subscribers to the Birmingham Library. J.D. Mullins, who had been the Librarian at the Birmingham Library since 1858, was appointed first Chief Librarian of the Birmingham Free Libraries in 1865. The Reference Library also obtained stock from the Birmingham Library; for example Audubon's Birds of America. The Birmingham Library had purchased this after Audubon visited England in 1830 to promote his book. It is now in the Library of Birmingham.

Although some subscribers left with the advent of the Free Libraries, the Birmingham Library continued to prosper. The Centenary Dinner was held in 1879; speeches showed the high regard for libraries at that time. The Mayor, Richard Chamberlain, said:
No man can be a good business man who has not a great love of books. Commerce depends largely upon noble thinking and honourable fidelity... The Old Library was the precursor of other libraries ...we come down to the Free Libraries, which have been as blessed as the sun in the sky to the people of the town.

In 1899 the building in Union Street was demolished, and the Library moved to Margaret Street. It is now called the Priestley Library, and is part of the Birmingham and Midland Institute.