HISTORY of the TOWN LIBRARY by Peter Searby
The Market Place of Saffron Walden, twelve miles or so from Cambridge, is like the rest of the small Essex town largely untouched by intrusive twentieth-century development. The Victorian Corn Exchange, an imposing Tuscan portico at its front, dominates the western side; on a close look it proves now to be the home of the County Library, while linked to it is the Saffron Walden Town Library, a Victorian foundation, still in its original home, that in the last quarter-century has been given a new lease of life under the sympathetic trusteeship of Essex County Council. The Town Library (now sometimes called the Victorian Studies Centre, perhaps a trifle confusingly) houses the Local History Collection, the chief resource for historians of Saffron Walden and district, and about 17,000 other books, all of them interesting, and some of them surprisingly unusual. It is a rare library indeed.
The Town Library dates from 1832, when the Saffron Walden Literary and Scientific Institution (SWLSI) was founded by the town's leading citizens, for 'the promotion and diffusion of useful and scientific knowledge. First by circulating books and periodicals
among the members and subscribers, and after such circulation, to preserve them as a library for the use of the Society.' Another purpose was to promote lectures and discussions. The Institution and the library were in theory linked, rather than totally integrated, by a constitution the complexity of which probably baffled contemporaries as much as it baffles us; but for our purposes it may be disregarded, since for the inhabitants of Saffron Walden the Library and the Institution were one. The enterprise was the product of an instinctive bookishness characteristic of Victorian Britain, though now much attenuated.
Prominent in the SWLSI was the Gibson family - local brewers and bankers, typical members of the Quaker eIite: enlightened, cultivated, serious-minded (though not always deficient in humour), gravitating through disposition and good works to the leadership of their communities. The most notable of them was George Stacey Gibson (1818-1883), whose portrait hangs in the Reading Room near the Victorian fireplace. Gibson was the proprietor of the Saffron Walden and North Essex Bank, a solidly prosperous venture that in 1896, after Gibson's death, joined with others to form Barclays Bank.