Engines of Knowledge in the First Information Age: The Library and the Text

By Hamish Robertson


This is the final piece in this series for The Sociological Imagination and it comes full circle by focusing on one of the most obvious, even foundational, ‘factories’ of knowledge – the library. More specifically, the public library and its associated texts, documents, processes and numerous innovations during the 19th century. This is a very large topic in its own right and one which cannot be addressed in its entirety here. So consider this is a selective exploration of some of the key knowledge formation and ‘production’ elements of the library as we understand it from the Victorian period.

The library is an ancient institution, and while far from unique to the 19th century, this proved a boom time for libraries, librarians and the emergence of library science – the first information science as we now understand it. The term ‘library science’ was coined in the by Bavarian librarian Martin Schrettinger. In the United Kingdom, the Public Libraries Act of 1850 (following the Museums Act of 1845) set the scene for free, public libraries at the municipal level. Many new private, public, subscription and academic libraries emerged as well as a variety of affiliated educational organisations, such as the Mechanics Institutes, reading rooms and a swathe of new universities and schools, promoting reading as never before. Much of this change was reformist in nature and some was associated with the Victorian idea of social uplift through the virtues of ‘high’ cultural exposure. It was during the 19th century that the foundations of what we now consider near universal literacy as a pervasive social norm and tangible reality emerged. So too did the various media produced and consumed under that paradigm, which joined up and developed enormous, even industrial, momentum.

The Rise of the Modern Reader

For libraries to be patronised by readers, as with writing and publishing, there was a need for a growing literate population with the time and opportunity to read. Just when this process took off in the United Kingdom is still a subject of debate, as are the interconnections between books being available, the rise of educational access, industrialisation and a variety of other factors. In the UK religion is still seen as a factor in the mix driving towards an overarching growth in literacy levels – including not only early developments in general literacy in Scotland, which reformed its university system along the Dutch lines in the 18th century – but also the growth in ‘non-conformist’ schools and academies south of the border and the enormous influence of Quakers and others in the British industrial revolution, its social effects and various charitable responses. The politics of formal education seen in the Victorian era endure to the present day.

Some of the literacy debate seeks a singular ‘generative’ factor, or tipping point, essential in producing a more rather than less literate population. But perhaps this is unrealistic in the Victorian context when so many new and expanding factors need to be considered in explaining a shift from one ‘side’ of the literacy equation to the other. For many people schooling was still minimal and may jobs did not yet require adult literacy as an essential skill, perhaps we need to consider a broader cultural dimension in which many factors actively and passively supported a growing ‘culture’ of literacy. In effect, these component’s added to the whole that made general literacy the norm and the library the engine of knowledge it soon became.

Text and Image

It seems perhaps obvious to suggest that there could be no great demand for the printed word without an expanding audience of readers, and this has certainly been the case. Many Gutenberg-centric histories of the rise of literacy, often minimising the Chinese and Japanese contributions to the whole process, supported by paper and paper products, focus on the text and the mechanics of printing, often at the expense of the image. This creates a false dichotomy in that images were meant to be ‘read’ and readers often supported a large audience of listeners, with writing and representative images used in combination. Dickens’ serialised novels in newspapers were still meant to be both read and heard.

Literacy did not mean an automatic turn to silent reading, in the same way that public speaking did not fall away as a skill as literacy and silent reading expanded. And earlier visual methods, such as the plan, map or atlas, became so important, and even artistic, that map folios were produced for all manner of audiences from early modern times onwards. Some, such as the Klencke Atlas now in the British Library, were even produced in ‘book’ formats that were physically so large they took several people to handle. In the 19th century infographics, designed to summarise growing factual and conceptual complexity, were everywhere and have remained with us ever since, gaining a renewed utility in the digital era.

This singular emphasis on the text needs to be reconsidered because both prior to the 19th century and deep at its heart was the idea of the image supplementing and supporting the text. This process expanded during the Victorian period to include the rapid growth of graphical statistics with which we are familiar from William Playfair and Florence Nightingale’s efforts. Illustrations supported and enhanced the written word in many domains. But also, the idea of complex information being summarised in visual form was a major feature of this period and utilised for all manner of books, journals, pamphlets and associated products.

It is no surprise that visual advertising, and advertising agencies, gained enormous momentum in this period as general literacy, the media and public education grew rapidly. At the same time, earlier forms of retail such as the department store began to diversify, expand and accelerate in many countries including the UK, the US and Europe. The development of postal services obviously supported these processes which included not only the more commercial formats but the writing of the informal, the intimate thought or feeling and the interior experience that could not always be spoken aloud. We need, therefore, to also consider the psychological element of the visual, the written word, the tactility of paper itself and its dynamic cultural position.

Technologies of Reading and Vision

While paper-making is a centuries old craft and commonly attributed to Chinese ingenuity, including a map from the first millennium BC, the manufacture of continuous paper proved extremely challenging and was only fully resolved in the 19th century. French technical innovations were covertly transferred to England during the revolutionary period and a successful machine was funded by the Fourdrinier brothers, eventually bankrupting them due to its phenomenal development costs. Yet another talented engineer, Bryan Donkin, then produced a working machine that was replicable, and continuous paper production began to gain momentum. Books, newspapers, periodicals and, of course, book publishers grew rapidly in both number and variety, producing a print culture. Paper itself precedes all this technology and exceeds them still in that it is itself an enormously flexible medium. The sheer diversity if its uses position it differently to the technologies by which it is manufactured, which has been remarked on at least since Innis and even more recently by Gitelman.

As remains the case today, for reading to be learned, accessible and usable in daily life most of us require light, either natural or artificial. Natural light in buildings, including schools and libraries, was facilitated by rapid growth and innovation in glass manufacturing, including Pilkington’s window glass production in the United Kingdom, Corning in the United States as well as many other general and specialist producers across Europe. Indeed, glass increasingly became associated with modernity itself, not only for its qualities of light but in the technical innovation its mastery as a material illustrated. The Great Exhibition of 1851 combined the Victorian technological triumphs of iron and glass in the Crystal Palace (preceded by the Great Conservatory at Syon Park), a ‘temple’ to industrial achievement and a form widely copied in other industries locally, including the railways, and internationally. In the following century glass-fronted skyscrapers would become so commonplace as to barely warrant mention but these too let in the light, while often reducing the available light at street level in a curious equation of internal light versus external shadow.

The 19th century was also the period in which public and then domestic lighting by gas and electricity (and often dangerous combinations of the two) emerged as an increasingly accessible technology. This made reading an increasingly mass activity. The newspapers, journals and periodicals that emerged in the 18th century began to escalate dramatically in the 19th century. This included creating a habit of reading through publishing instalments of longer articles and novels in newspapers and magazines. Publishers were hungry for content and opportunities for writers grew accordingly.

We also need to consider the social order and ordering that (artificial) light made possible. To be able to light a building, town or city at night makes it more policeable. And some early incarnations of street lighting were actually paid for from police budgets. Indeed, many light ‘technologies’ supported social regulation in ways we would recognise today, including not only street lights but photography (commonly used in criminology and eugenics), spot lighting, flood lighting and, towards the end of the 19th century, the electric torch or flashlight. Even the Post Office made surveillance possible in ways that were easier and faster than ever before.

Beyond the Text

Over time many libraries have lent not only books but a variety of other cultural artefacts as well. Indeed, linked to the more progressive side of 19th century reformism, many libraries founded in this period were seen as community resources in a much broader sense than simply being a place where one could borrow a book for free or on subscription. Andrew Carnegie founded more than 2,500 libraries between 1883 and 1929 in more than a dozen countries. Some 1600 were in the United States which by 1919 constituted almost half of all public libraries in the country. Many were framed around of the idea of being a central community resource, so, for example, his first American public library was established in Braddock, Pennsylvania in 1889 and operated until 1973. This library was essentially a community centre, as we would now think of it, and included a bathhouse and billiard tables with further extensions adding a swimming pool and bowling alley. The management of these libraries saw a variety of social, technical and governance changes over the period including the increasing feminisation of the role of the librarian.

The other side of the library equation is its more conventional role as a social institution with ordering tendencies. Black’s work, for example, has explored the mix of progressive and authoritarian tendencies visible in the development of the public library during the long 19th century. More interesting still, he has remarked on the library as a clinic, after Foucault, aimed at ‘treating’ a variety of social ills arising from massive social, industrial and urban change – including deviance, disorder, drunkenness, political radicalism and the like. The library can be seen then as a site of quite particular forms of knowledge production and a locus for promoting behaviours acceptable to dominant social elites. What perhaps resonates down to the present is, in extending Black’s notion, of engines of knowledge as sites of social ‘treatment’ for the prevailing issues of the time. What happens as these cultural institutions, as they have become, are consolidated, defunded, privatised or closed?


We can see that the library became a locus for social, technological and informational change as well as to maintain order in the context of massive social and technological change. The library is still an engine of knowledge but, as with the topics of most of these pieces, it is also a highly-connected engine, one functioning by connection to and in association with a variety of other engines and processes, including socio-political changes, technological innovations and the emergence of new professions. The library was, in all its complexity, not simply a site for the Victorian social virtue of ‘self-betterment’ or education as a personal virtue but a complex and negotiated space in the growth and development of the engines of knowledge explored in this series. That place of early information science continues to be negotiated in our contemporary digital era.

Hamish Robertson is a geographer at the University of New South Wales with experience in healthcare including a decade in ageing research. He has worked in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors and he has presented and published on a variety of topics ranging from ageing, diversity, health informatics, Aboriginal health, patient safety and spatial science to cultural heritage research. Hamish is currently completing his PhD on the geography of Alzheimer’s disease and recently finished editing a book on museums and older people.

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