History of The Early Libraries

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History of The Early Libraries

Early Walking Library

Walking Libraries

Here is a photograph taken in the 1930’s showing two women in the street. One has a books case of two shelves which are stacked with the slanting spines of books. The other has a book in her hands and her head lowered towards the open pages of the book.

Annie Koh has more details from the photograph and the caption below which read:

“THE WALKING LIBRARY: London, England – Critics are always remarking that we in this country lag far behind those of European countries when it comes to borrowing books from libraries. Well, this enterprising girl at Rumsgate solves the problem by taking her books in a rack tied to her back round the streets and from door to door and people can borrow them for a week at the price of twopence.”

This caption is taken from the VSV Soibelman Syndicate News Agency Archive. This has been circulating via the Twitter account “History in Pictures,” and notes that the picture shows a Walking Library during the 1930s in London.

Were Walking Libraries Real

There were questions as to whether walking libraries were actually a thing. However, there is a rich history of people who walked with books as well as book collections which were made for travelling

Deirdre Heddon and Misha Myers who were performers and were inspired by stories of a historical nature explored an intersection of walking and books for an ongoing art project they were doing. They both write for the journal Cultural Geographies.

In 1818 the poet John Keats had walked to the Lake District, which was in Scotland and he had carried along with him The Divine Comedy by Dante as well as the works of John Milton, An example is For conservationist John Muir’s thousand-mile walk, he had “a copy of poetry by Robert Burns, Paradise Lost by Milton, Botany from William Wood, a journal, a map and a small copy of the New Testament”.

Heddon and Myers, however, had also wanted to know what books could be added to a journey as well as affecting the experience of it plus how the movement through landscape can affect the experience of reading.

Travelling Libraries

Traveling Library CaseOn a long trip, it would have been tiring when having to carry a full collection of books. However, in England in the 17th Century, there were four individuals or families who were lucky to be the owners of a travelling library which had been expertly designed.

The only requirement it had was that there were about 50 gold-tooled and vellum bound books that were miniature. These would all be bundled into a bigger wooden case and bound together in brown leather so it looked itself like a book. There were four of these made which made up a true travelling library and they are now held in the special collections part at the University of Leeds’ 

David Kirby from the Michigan Quarterly review wrote that “These traveling libraries were intended to be carried about by noblemen in their travels.” It seemed that scholars were undecided as to who had commissioned the travelling libraries of which there were 4 but they did suspect strongly that it was a lawyer, legal historian and bibliophile by the name of William Hakewill who lived from 1574 to 1655.

Who Were Attracted to Travelling Libraries

Travelling libraries were attractive to people such as kings as they could afford to have such custom-made treasures. Napoleon Bonaparte was said to have commissioned a travelling library of his own from M. Louis Barbier, after being weary of having to lug (or having other people lugging) his favourite books which amounted to “several boxes holding about sixty volumes each”.

According to an article that had been published on 8th June 1885 in the Sacramento Daily Union, at the time M. Louis Barbier was in charge of the library at the Louvre. An excerpt was posted from the paper to his blog by the author Austin Kleon. He reported that each tiny book that was in the library should “contain from five hundred to six hundred pages and be bound in covers as flexible as possible and with spring backs.”

Furthermore, there should be forty dramatic works, forty volumes of epic, forty works on religion and sixty of other poetry,  sixty volumes of history, one hundred novels, and the remainder being historical memoirs of every period.

Travelling Libraries for the Less Well-heeled


 A bookmobile visiting Blount County, Tennessee, in 1943.

There was a different sort of travelling library that became available for people who were less well-heeled.

There are still travelling booksellers who are referred to as book fairs or even bookmobiles who visit schools and have their roots in the travelling libraries from more than a century ago.

These nomadic book gatherings were first moved by horse-drawn carts, after that they used automobiles. There were rural areas that depended on the visiting collections and there are communities today that still enjoy their own quirky versions.

New Style of Walking Library

Kirby offered up a metaphor in the Michigan Quarterly Review that there appears to be a different possible kind of walking library. He produced an essay which was about the arrival of the electronic book and what the outcome of digital technology was going to mean for readers in the future.

He noted that “an e-book reader that is reasonably priced and a pleasure to use will be the ultimate travelling library”. While forewarning, he added that Kindles and Nooks are unlikely to resemble the future definitive e-book any more than the resembled and well-designed Model T vehicles today.

In some ways, though, e-book readers do resemble a library, even though a personal one and in some formats like the Kindle, friends can borrow a book from the user for a time.

There is a reporter who has an e-book reader which is tucked into a pocket especially sewn into her satchel, meaning she’ll be taking her own travelling library for a walk.


Here is some extra related content to the above information on travelling libraries.

I found the research for this document interesting as I never knew there was such a thing as a walking library or that the travelling libraries started so early on.

I do however remember the library van coming to the school when I was younger and we went out every week to pick a book. But there was nothing like a travelling library went round our village so anybody could go and get a book.

I hope you enjoy this article and if you have any comments or feedback, please leave them in the comment section below or contact me at WealthyAffiliate.com.



4 Responses

  1. Micaela says:

    That’s quite fascinating. I have never heard of a walking library before but quite a novel concept given the era. I really like the idea. Someone needs to make a walking library at the beach so that you can grab a book and relax in the sun for the day 🙂

    • Cheryl Brown says:

      Thanks very much for your comment and I found it really interesting while typing about it. Agree that would be a great idea as it would save having to make sure you had a book with you when you go to the beach. Glad you liked the article, was a bit concerned it was too long.

  2. Happy to see The Walking Library get a mention here. Thank you! We continue making Walking Libraries for different events, and the next one takes place in London this weekend: The Walking Library for Women Walking.

    • Cheryl Brown says:

      You are very welcome Deirdre and thanks for your comments. If I can ever put any more updated material on for you just let me know. I will be more than happy to do it. xx

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