Books for the People
The row over a “Free Library” first came to a head in 1902 when Hebden Bridge council backed the proposal but dithered over levying a penny on the rates and finding suitable premises.
The battle was still going on seven years later, the campaign – the first of many – stoutly led by members of Hebden Bridge Literary and Scientific Society who were never afraid to take up the cudgels on behalf of a worthy local cause.
It all centred on Scottish-born philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who had made his fortune in the U.S.A. and offered £100 to help fund the library. Surprisingly – and somewhat churlishly – opponents argued that townsfolk already had library facilities and, in any case, “books are cheap and there is not the same enthusiasm for Free Libraries that there used to be.” (Hebden Bridge Times June 15 1909).
Books could also be a health hazard, they added: “The rapid growth of sanitary knowledge has begotten a wholesome fear of contagion – even from well-thumbed fiction books. Many people have got imbued with the notion that books from Free Libraries are in such a condition as to be undesirable things to have in the house.”
The row rumbled on, “Astounded” responding a week later: “All reasonably intelligent people must be absolutely astounded at the unspeakable attitide of some Hebden Bridge ratepayers in opposing a Free Library their midst. Here a magnificent gift – for, sirs, it is nothing less – is offered to them and all they are asked to pay is a paltry penny rate. They see no further than the end of their noses and are a danger to the community, no less.”
“Utility,” however, was of the opinion that people would prefer public baths: “A free library would serve the few rather than the many and would be of questionable further benefit, compared with its cost, remembering how easily books can be got in other ways.”
Good sense prevailed, however, and in October a library was finally established in “the bottom rooms of the old secondary school.” HBLSS members were commended on having been “the chief movers in that direction, their persistency has brought its own reward.”