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Journal of the Bahamas Historical Society, Volume 1 (October 1979)

by Paul Boultbee

Libraries in some form or another have existed since man first learned to read and write; to record his triumphs and defeats, his commerce, laws and literature. Records of civilization have been kept for nearly 3000 years and have nearly always found their way into some kind of library, archive or repository of knowledge. Originally these collections were either royal or government libraries and remained as such, for the most part, until the 18th century.1 It was not until this time that the predecessors of the public library, as we know it today, came into existence. These early movements, culminating in public library systems, began in Britian and have a direct bearing on the development of library service in the Bahamas.

In order to understand the influences of these developments in general and on the establishment of the Nassau Public Library in particular one must look at library developments in Britain during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

The Industrial Revolution had a far-reaching effect on all of English society and created a growing social consciousness among the population. This concern resulted in the passing of the Factory Acts, the Public Health Acts, etc. creating a whole new society. In order to cope with this new society the people had to be informed, reformed and re-educated. One solution was in the establishment of Mechanics' Institutes, "... a brave attempt to break the wall of ignorance that hemmed in the working classes."2 These institutes were for the working men, the mechanics and artisans, who wished to enjoy the benefits of education particularly in relation to their trades and occupations. The movement began in Glasgow in 1800 when Professor George Birbeck of the Andersonian Institution began offering adult evening classes. A small library was established and in 1823 the students founded the Glasgow Mechanics' Institution. Within 25 years there were 400 active institutions in the United Kingdom and by 1863 there were over 700.3

Many years before the establishment of Mechanics' Institutes there were, in Britain, subscription and circulating libraries. The circulating libraries began in Scotland in 1725 when Allan Ramsay, bookseller and poet, set up his shop in Edinburgh and charged a fee for the borrowing of his books.4 By 1800 there were no fewer than 1,000 circulating libraries scattered throughout the United Kingdom.5 During the first half of the 20th century, however, these commercial libraries faced increasing difficulties: competition from public libraries, rising costs, and the increasing popularity of paperbacks. Few, if any, circulating libraries exist today.

A circulating library of this type, at one time, existed in Nassau. A newspaper advertisement offers evidence of this. In the Royal Gazette of July 24, 1804 Thomas Williamson announced that he had 500 novels and plays in his circulating library. Members who paid six and a half dollars for a period of three months would be able to borrow books from this collection. Thelma Peters mentions this library and refers to it as one of the legacies of the Loyalist period.6


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  1. Other types of libraries prior to the 18th century included monastic libraries and private libraries. These often formed the nuclei for many of Europe's present-day university and national libraries. Public libraries of a sort were first erected in Rome between 39 and 27 B. C. With the fall of Rome they ceased to exist.
  2. E. R. Chamberlain, The Librarian and His World (London, 1968), 19.
  3. L. R. McColvin, Libraries in Britain (London, 1961), 6-7.
  4. Ibid., 1.
  5. T. Landau, e.d., Encyclopedia of Librarianship (London, 1966). 433.
  6. T. P. Peters, "The American Loyalists and the Plantation Period in the Bahama Islands" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Florida, 1960). 181.