"Arsenals of scientific and technical information": Public Technical Libraries in Britain during and immediately after World War I

Alistair Black

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Although from its inception in 1850 the public library in Britain displayed an economic dimension, attempting to respond in relatively general ways to technical, scientific, industrial, and commercial needs, it was not until the First World War that the institution's "materialist" role achieved anything like the standing of its traditional sociocultural function. The war generated a series of economic, social, political, and technological problems and proposed solutions. There was considerable anxiety concerning the anticipated escalation in postwar international competition arising from the loss of foreign markets. The war brought into sharp relief Britain's relatively poor scientific and technological infrastructure. Total conflict engendered extensive social and political disaffection and an accompanying fear of impending radical change. In addressing these problems and tensions, the government initiated a policy of reconstruction in the second half of the war. One element of this policy was a planned extension of public library services, including an upgrading of technical and commercial information provision through the establishment of new "dedicated" departments. In the closing years of the war and in its immediate aftermath, public technical and commercial libraries (generically termed "technical libraries" in this article) emerged in some of Britain's large cities. An analysis of plans and statements from librarians, the business world, and political elites in support of these new "workshop" libraries throws light on contemporary discourses concerning the future of the economy and sociopolitical ideas. However, outside the grand issues of economic policy and social and political stability, discussion surrounding the intended purpose and practices of technical and commercial libraries reflected debates and tensions in the library and information world concerning the nature, status, and identity of librarianship, its relevance to information work and documentation, and the future of the public library in the postwar world.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)474-489
Number of pages16
JournalLibrary Trends
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Library and Information Sciences


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