"Every burned book or house enlightens the world: every suppressed expunged word reverberates through the earth”
Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Libraries and fire have a long and complex relationship. Exploring the history of libraries in Norwich in preparation for a show at the Bridewell Museum, I was shocked to find that most of the major libraries have ended in flames. Beginning with Norwich Cathedral Library which was unfortunately destroyed twice: first by citizens in the Tombland Riot 1272 then again during Henry VIII"s Dissolution of the Monasteries 1538.
During the 17th century Norwich city had been granted an extraordinary degree of self government which fostered a sense of independence and increasing radicalism. Sir John Pettus (1550-1614), Mayor of Norwich, set up a city library in 1608 six years after the foundation of the Bodlian Library, Oxford. This was probably the first provincial library to be established outside of London, and the first to be owned by a corporation rather than church or school. As a result The Old City Library, (refounded in 1657), was set up with an unusually broad range of books including topics as philosophy, law, mathematics, and as well as maps. This was a marked departure from the usual predominantly religious texts.
This enlightened spirit continued on into the eighteenth century when Philip Martineau established a subscription library in 1784. This saw a further departure from tradition as only five clergymen were included on a the committee of 24. Furthermore women were to represent 26% of the original 140 subscribers. It was one of the oldest subscription libraries in the country and continued in operation until it was destroyed by fire in 1898. It was re built opening its doors again in 1914, and continued in operation for a further 62 years until finally closing in 1976.
The nineteenth century saw the Norfolk and Norwich Literary Institution open in 1822, and a free Council run library in 1857. The 1850 Libraries Act had allowed larger boroughs to add half a penny in the pound to the rates to pay for the costs of running library facilities. Norwich Council was among the first to adopt the Act and were subsequently able to create a truly public, non-subscription library. This library survived for 96 years before being demolished to give way to the New Central Library in 1963.
However as was the fate of previous libraries, this too succumbed to a devastating fire in 1994 when over 150,000 books burned along with irreplaceable historical documents from the Record Office. The central library had held more than two million documents including the 800 year old Norwich City Charter, along with manuscripts dating back as far as 1090.
Once more, undeterred Norwich set about rebuilding and establishing a city library. Project Phoenix saw the completion of Millennium Library at the Forum in 2001. This glorious new building sits in the centre of the city and is considered to be one of the most visited libraries in the country. It continues to be home to a magnificent collection of surviving Renaissance books.
"In the library the first time
I stood in a pool of awe.
Wonder for the taking, acres of promises".
In the Library, William McIlvanney
My own love of libraries and books began in childhood. I spent many hours in our local municipal library. I was amazed by the vast choice of books that lined the shelves, and loved the quiet, peaceful atmosphere. It is sad to think about the challenges now facing many libraries today which have seen funding cuts and/or been threatened with closure. We should never underestimate their value and the part they have played in transforming society from the 18th & 19th centuries through to the present. Access to books and education has been hard won achievement and a privilege.
Researching the history of libraries in Norwich has revealed so much information, I have chosen to focus on this cycle of destruction, loss, and the determination to salvage and rebuild.
As Richard Ovenden points out in his book Burning the Books, Knowledge Under Attack "libraries and archives take the long view of civilisation in a world that currently tales a short view. We ignore their importance at our peril"
I am also part of Bookscapes Collective.
Bookscapes is a group of six artists that have developed a group practice specialising in site specific interventions and exhibitions.