The Opposition to the Free Library in Birmingham was composed of very ill-assorted elements; it consisted of the “economists” who oppose any increase of rates for any object; of the publicans,who foresaw they were not likely to gain by the opening of free libraries; of the extreme Nonconformists, who objected to all rates for such purposes; and of the Clergy, who raised the “religious difficulty” as to books for the people. – Sir Richard Tangye
The supporters of the Enlightenment believed that education was the cure to all of mankind’s ills. However, there were some strong opposition to educating women and poor people … in case they got ideas above their stations or their brains melted. This is no joke. In England, just as there was a strong move by Education Reformers towards having a basic education made available to all children, other people were lobbying to leave things as they were.
In 1870, a law was passed saying that children aged between five and ten had to attend weekday school. Even so, many children were kept away from school by parents and employers who would rather have them earning money. There were public donations to fund public libraries, and at the same time, many people were complaining that supplying books to the poor was a waste of time and effort. Even the Church of England was against seeing the ‘great unwashed’ educated – because education leads to questioning the status quo.
This might be hard to understand in our era of information junkies. Few modern children really relish going to school; but their grand-great grandmothers and great-great grandfathers were working ridiculously long hours in mines and factories until the Education Act came in. Even now, the Australian government isn’t too keen to support funding for education, as an ignorant and unquestioning populace is a docile and easily manipulated populace. When Tony Abbott took power, he abolished the position of the Minister for Science; he doesn’t believe in rational thought and innovation.
It was the reformers of the Enlightenment movement who encouraged the availability of an education for all children and provide the opportunity for the poor and working classes to have access to libraries, museums and art galleries – to increase their knowledge, broaden their outlook, and enrich their lives accordingly. It was around the time of education reform that the saying ‘A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing” became so popular, though it had been around in some form in previous centuries. The educated rich didn’t want to discover that any urchin off the street could prove to be smarter than they were.
Thank goodness that for every person who fought against improving the condition for the working classes and the poor, there was another one working to improve their lot. People like Richard Tangye (pictured above) and his brother George, who were founding benefactors of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in 1885, and they also helped found the Birmingham School of Art. Journalists like Henry Mayhew (pictured below) and Charles Dickens (yes, THAT Dickens), did their very best to open the public’s eyes to daily horrors faced by those with little money to spend on luxuries like food, clothing, medicine and a place to sleep.
As a writer in the Steampunk genre, it never ceases to amaze me how much the world changed during the Victorian era. Not only was it the Industrial Revolution making changes to the structure of society, it was like people were fizzing to keep those changes bubbling along like champagne. It is hard to believe that most public libraries are quite recent institutions. Personally, I don’t think any city can be called civilized without a library or two, (or a dozen). As Steampunk is all about innovation, a library would be an excellent setting in a Steampunk genre narrative.