The chance discovery of an 1890s poster campaigning for Worthing to have its first public library strikes a chord with public service battles that continue today.
The poster was found folded up inside a scrapbook by University of Brighton lecturer Dr Annebella Pollen who teaches on the University’s HOAD programme, during research at Worthing Museum for a project called Objects Unwrapped. Once unfolded, the poster turned out to be a proclamation of 21 reasons why Worthing needed a public library, dating back to a heated campaign in 1892 over whether or not the Victorian seaside resort should open a public library.
Today’s Worthing Library was closed for some time for major renovation, and to mark its reopening late last year, Dr Pollen sought support from University of Brighton’s Centre for Design History to hire a graphic designer to scan and digitally repair the poster, recreating how it would have looked in 1892. She then had the poster printed in its original size and framed to be put on display in the reopened library.
Dr Pollen, Reader in University of Brighton’s School of Humanities and Social Science, said: “I donated this incredible poster to Worthing Library as a reminder to people using the service 130 years on about the historic battle to found the library in the first place – and the reasons why it continues to bring inestimable value to the town and its people.
“In the last decade, public library closures have become a regular and regrettable occurrence. Government austerity policies have radically reduced local councils’ budgets, with libraries characterised as luxuries – just as some argued in 1892. What libraries are for, and who they benefit, is still being argued about, and campaigns to keep libraries open today have been just as vociferous and creative with things like posters as the Victorian campaign in Worthing.”
Back in 1892, Hove was the only town in Sussex to have a public library, prompting a young solicitor called Robert W. Charles to start a campaign for Worthing to emulate its Sussex neighbour. Reasons he put forward forcefully on the poster discovered by Dr Pollen included the idea that a public library was “as necessary for the mental and moral health of the citizens as good sanitary arrangements, water supply and street lighting are for the physical health and comfort of the people”.
Perhaps unexpectedly, there was considerable resistance to the campaign. The fiercest opponent was one Reverend J. Lancaster, vicar of the Church of the Holy Trinity, who financed leaflets to be delivered to homes of the town’s poor, claiming that the cost of the rate-financed library would be a burden they could ill afford. He also claimed that a library open to all would harm the moral fibre of Worthing residents by being “conducive to novel reading rather than healthy reading”!
In an echo of today’s pandemic worries, fears were also expressed that infectious diseases might be spread by books going from any public library into different homes – prompting suggestions for inventions that might keep books germ-free, such as book holders with tin lids.
Though a public meeting in 1892 voted for Worthing to get a library, its opening was delayed by a devastating outbreak of typhoid which necessarily saw priorities directed elsewhere. Eventually, a very modest public library was opened in an existing building in 1895 – with Robert Charles as honorary librarian.
It wasn’t until 1908 that a substantial dedicated library building was built in the town – now housing Worthing Museum and Art Gallery – spurred on by further campaigning, this time by local librarian and curator called Marian Frost.
Watch a video of Dr Pollen speaking at the presentation of the poster to Worthing Library.