Libraries in Norwich - a history

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

I went to Norwich last week, on a whim. Having read that Norwich has the busiest library in the UK, being a library fan, I decided to go to see it for myself. I also learned that having opened in 1608, Norwich's library is among one of the oldest public libraries in England. So, the day was set for a fascinating day of library encounters.

Before I went, I had a look in the RGS's Foyle Reading Room at some old maps of Norwich - dating from 1946, 1914, 1910, 1830, 1834 & 1766. The later three showed two library sites, so I set off to find out what was there now.

The first Norwich library was established in 1608. Three rooms of a house belonging to Jerrom Goodwym, a swordbearer, were converted into a library for use by visiting preachers in a building adjoining this, St Andrews Hall. The library stood here for 193 years.

Site of old Norwich library - St Andrews Hall

This building housed a private subscription library, which also doubled as Norwich's library for some time, between 1837 and 1976. The building is now a tastefully renovated restaurant.

Sketch of Norwich library

Old Norwich library

Inside old Norwich Library

In early 19th century, Norwich was dubbed the "Athens of England" for its intellectual life and society. So there was call for a second library, and in 1857 another library opened at this building on St Andrew's Street.

Old Norwich library site

The owners, sadly, could not find a suitable notary to open the building (they had asked the Duke of Cambridge, Lord Stanley, Gladstone, Lord John Russell, and even William Ewart, a well-known library campaigner).

Apparently, this was the UK's first building specifically designed as a library. It's now gone, demolished. The site on St Andrews Street stood from March 1857 to December 1962.

Site of old Norwich library - St Andrew's Street

The library then moved to the site it currently occupies - although the building has changed. It burned down in 1994 due to an electrical fault. Here's what it looked like inside, sometime in the 1960s.

Inside Norwich library

And now, the library is a bright, open, airy place, all glass and light. It's laid out more like HMV than a library, and has Council information, CDs, DVDs, books, internet and local archives all on one site. And the books are good - I noticed an architecture book I've previously only seen in gallery shops. And to top it all, it's getting even bigger.

Norwich library @ the Forum

Inside Norwich library

I thoroughly enjoyed my day in Norwich, and its libraries. Here's hoping it continues to have success for another 400 years.