Leadhills Reading Society and a Wider World

Meeting date

Dr John Crawford, Leadhills Heritage Trust

Meeting report

After a long career working in libraries and studying their historical evolution, Dr John Crawford was well placed to address members of the Dumfriesshie and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society on the subject of the Leadhills Reading Society and a Wider World at their meeting on 20 October. Indeed, he has been associated with the Leadhills Library since 1969 and is currently Chairman of the Leadhills Heritage Trust.

Dr Crawford began his talk by setting the Leadhills experience in a broader context. The eighteenth century witnessed significant changes in the world of books, including the beginnings of commercial publishing and the emergence of a wider reading public. Dr Crawford introduced his audience to the idea of 'intensive' reading being replaced by 'extensive' reading — i.e. the practice of a small number of books being read and re-read was superseded by a range of books being read perhaps only once each by any given reader. In this climate libraries flourished and by 1800 there were more than 100 publicly available libraries in Scotland. These took a variety of forms, including around 50 working-class reading societies. It is these which are Dr Crawford's particular interest and he described the subscription library as 'Scotland's gift to the modern information society'. Typically, working-class libraries of this era might have had a five-shillings entrance fee and an annual subscription of two shillings and six pence — not inconsiderable sums in the eighteenth century. The fact that ordinary working men were prepared to pay them stands as testament to their thirst for knowledge.

Two key contemporary ideas enabled libraries such as that at Leadhills to flourish. The first was 'associationism', the joining of a collective body in pursuit of a particular set of common objectives; the second 'mutual improvement', which implied that more could be attained, or in the case of libraries learnt, as part of a group than by the solitary individual. Taking his story from Benjamin Franklin's Junto Club in America to Allan Ramsay’s Easy Club in Scotland, Dr Crawford arrived at the village of Leadhills in South Lanarkshire. Lead had been mined in the area since the Middle Ages, but organized industry dates from the seventeenth century. James Stirling (1692–1770), to whom there is a memorial in Greyfriars Kirkyard, was a mine manager and a distinguished scholar in his own right. He encouraged the miners to build their own cottages and to grow vegetables. A genuine philanthropist, he anticipated by about 60 years many of the activities of Robert Owen in New Lanark and it was probably he who founded the Leadhills Library in 1741, making it, as Dr Crawford confidently asserted, the world's first working-class subscription library. The library had a set of rules which included the right to exclude a member for unseemly behaviour. A first printed catalogue dated 1800 suggests that the library then had around 1000 volumes. Membership fluctuated between about 60 and 100 members. The last major catalogue from 1904 indicates a holding of 3805 volumes. The library ceased to function in the 1960s, but now offers visitors a fascinating insight into a working-class manifestation of the Scottish Enlightenment. The miners clearly believed in what a later generation would call 'life-long learning'.

Dr Crawford described some of the library’s surviving treasures. Its oldest book dates from 1673; there is a fine collection of first editions; and the library banner is the oldest in Britain and recently featured on television's Antiques Roadshow. The library remains very much a 'work in progress' and Dr Crawford outlined plans for the future, including on-going maintenance of the library building and the conservation of its holdings. At the end of his fascinating talk the speaker responded knowledgeably to a number of questions from an appreciative audience.