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Leicester Special Collections

1850s Libraries Act

This act gave local councils the ability to set up free, public libraries for the first time. [1] It has been credited as being the first step to providing ‘universal free access to information and literature’. [2] Around the time of this act (1832 – 1850), there was great concern about the welfare (both physical and mental) of the increasing, urbanized workforce.[3] Much legislation was passed during this time including the Parliamentary Reform Act 1832 and the Public Health Act 1848, increasing the rights and health of the population.[4]

Brief History of Museums in Bolton leaflet, n. d. 

Bolton Museum and Art Gallery

The first museum in Bolton is reminiscent of the cabinets of curiosities and the want of private collectors to exhibit their large collections. However, Bolton museum as we know it today, was born from the 1850 Libraries act. Bolton encompasses the Victorian ideal of ‘self-improvement through education’, an idea which has been used to explain the establishment and popularity of institutions such as libraries and museums during this time. [5] But did Bolton museum really achieve these idealistic aims? [6] Would there have been any opposition to this act or ideal at the time? Do we still view museums in this way?

[1] Friends of Cambridge Libraries, Public Libraries Act 1850, <> [accessed 14/8/2017].

[2] Ibid.

[3] Historic England, The English Public Library 1850 – 1939, <> [accessed 14/8/2017], p. 2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Amy Woodson – Boulton, ‘Victorian Museums and Victorian Society’, History Compass, 6:1, (2008), p. 111.

[6] Ibid. p. 116.