History of the Town Library

INTRODUCTION by John Shaw-Ridler

Newcomers to Saffron Walden sometimes confuse the Town Library and the County Library, even assuming that they are alternative names for the same institution. This is compounded by the fact that both libraries appear to share the same building. There are in fact two buildings (the former Corn Exchange and The Town Library building in King Street, connected in 1975) and two libraries, the County Library which occupies the old Corn Exchange (gifted to the county by the Town Council) and the Saffron Walden Town Library. The simplest way to distinguish them is to say that Essex County Libraries own the Saffron Walden lending and reference libraries, which are funded from the community charge. Whilst Essex County Council are the trustees for the Town Library, administering the assets of the Trust for the benefit of that library.

The Town Library has a long and distinguished history dating back to 1832, it is not alone. There are about thirty other libraries in the UK with similar histories; all have made important contributions to the development and extension of literacy and education. They date mainly from the mid-eighteenth to late-nineteenth centuries but some are earlier, for example, Chetham's Library in Manchester was founded in 1653. Their value to our educational heritage is incalculable. Whilst many schools and all universities survive to attest to their contribution to the history and development of education very few of these libraries, which spearheaded the movement towards popular education survive.

Since 1967, when the Trusteeship was transferred to Essex County Council, the Town Library has enjoyed a unique status. At that time both the County Council and the original Trustees were anxious to ensure that the interests of the Town Library were properly secured and its income not spent inappropriately. The Trustees were in a strong position with a building in the Town Centre where the county wanted to re-locate its lending library,

© Saffron Walden Town Library Society, 2004 & 2015

a fine library and other valuable assets. Both County and Trustees were anxious that such a rare community resource should continue to develop rather than become a museum piece.

Intense local interest in the fate of the library coupled with the far-sightedness of those involved in the negotiations (which included the Dept. of Education) meant that arrangements were made to ensure that a strong local involvement in the management of the library was maintained. It is appropriate to remember here the Chairman, Robert Mays; the former Librarian, Mary Whiteman; the County Librarian, K.J. Lace; the Chairman of the County Library Committee, Ald. Crofton; and the Chairman of the County Council, Brig. Collins; who worked unstintingly for a settlement that would preserve the library as a part of Saffron Walden's living heritage.

The practical arrangements for the development of a Victorian Studies Centre firmly based on the Town Library collection, re-inforced this element of local responsibility when the spending of Trust funds and decisions about staffing were devolved. These arrangements have worked well for nearly fifty years. The Town Library continues to operate as a living library, acquiring new books that are relevant to its interests, managing an ongoing programme of re-binding and conservation and organising a regular programme of lectures and exhibitions.

The history of the Town Library is told in the remaining pages of this section by the eminent scholar Peter Searby. We are happy to take the opportunity provided here to thank him for taking on this task for the Town Library Society and for producing such an interesting and well-written work. We are aware of the demands that work like this imposes and are grateful for the care he has taken in compiling this history. Our thanks are also due to the Heritage Lottery Fund without whose help the venture would not have been possible.

John Shaw-Ridler, 2004
ex-President Town Library Society

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