Explore the treasure in your local library

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In a couple of weeks’ time Falkirk Library will celebrate Local History Week.

This is obviously an opportunity to encourage people to take an interest in their communities, but also a chance to highlight the vital role that libraries have played and still play in informing, educating and entertaining people of all ages.

Libraries are very different places from the ones I remember as a child. No computers back then and not much talking either! ). Mrs Brown commanded silence with a withering stare and the atmosphere was like a Trappist monastery.

But it was a treasure trove of information which changed the lives of thousands for the better. Back in the 1830s Falkirk had several small libraries linked to churches and other organisations as well as a ‘subscription library’, referred to as the Public Library.

Some had over 1000 books but their use was limited to members or subscribers. In 1880 the YMCA opened a new building in Newmarket Street and six years later Falkirk philanthropist Robert Dollar, then prospering in Michigan, offered $5000 to stock a library provided it was freely available to ‘all classes ’.

The Dollar Free Library was the result, with many books of an ‘improving’ nature aimed at helping to encourage people to behave themselves! Records show that in its first nine months of operation it successfully issued well over 20,000 books to 1200 readers.

Though it survived for nearly 20 years it was never able to match the demand. Enter the great Andrew Carnegie, who offered £2500 towards a new building if the town put up an equal amount in 1887, a year after the council had taken over the Dollar library.

His offer was accepted, but Carnegie had to cough up nearly £6000 and the outcome was the familiar red sandstone building in Hope Street which was opened by Carnegie himself in 1902.

Of course things were very different in those early days. Customers couldn’t browse the shelves but searched through catalogues, identified the books and then consulted the indicator boards to see if they were available.

Modern users will recognise the system as not dissimilar to what happens today give or take a few computers!

This method continued until 1922 when open shelves of books became the normal method of display.

By the 1980s it was obvious that lack of space was limiting the service and the decision was taken to spend £1.5 million on an extension. Designed to match the old building it was opened in April 1993, exactly 20 years ago.

What Robert Dollar and Andrew Carnegie would have made of the bill is anybody’s guess, but we can be sure that they would have approved of the important place that the library still has in the life of the community.

You can find out more about Local History Week on www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/libraries.