In ‘A Tale of Two Buildings’ Fay Hewitt Brown says ‘Ventnorians must always have been good readers’, and the story of our Library bears that out.
The story begins in 1848 when the ‘Ventnor and Bonchurch Literary and Scientific Institution’ was established, the aim being to provide for members a library, reading room, newspapers, and space for lectures and concerts, and in 1850 the Institution moved into its new specially built home in Ventnor High Street, which is now Ventnor Library. The Institution was open to members only, who paid a subscription – annual members paying ten shillings and sixpence in advance were entitled to use the Reading Room every day.
Some of the first books in the Library were ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ by James Fennimore Cooper’, Gilbert White’s ‘Natural History of Selbourne’, Joshua Reynolds’ ‘Discourse on the Fine Arts’ and Walter Scott’s ‘Waverley’, a Scottish romance often regarded as the first historical novel (the illustration on the right is from the 1893 edition of the book).
Amongst the books purchased in 1862 were Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ (the picture on the left, from the second edition in 1847, shows Jane confronting her guardian Mrs Reed) and ‘East Lynne’, a Victorian best seller with a plot centring on infidelity and double identities; were these popular with male readers, or was the Institution also attracting women?
Readers in Ventnor were well provided for in the middle of the nineteenth century – in 1859 there were at least five libraries operating in different shops – and the Institution was central to the life of the town. In July 1866 the Reading Room began to be used for the Registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths on a weekly basis, and in September that year a ‘Public Tea’ was held for working men and their wives for the opening of the railway.
Although the original Ventnor and Bonchurch Literary and Scientific Institution was for members only, a ‘club’ for the cultured and educated people of the town, ideas of self help and the importance of education were gaining strength in England, and in September 1886 Mr Charles Seely, a Liberal MP who owned property on the Isle of Wight, proposed the establishment of a ‘Free Library’, which anyone could use. In consultation with members of the Institution Committee it was decided to call it the Jubilee Free Reading Room and Library. It was open for the lending of books for one hour each evening, or longer if found necessary (except Sunday). The Institution also offered occasional free lectures, concerts and other entertainments.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century there were difficulties in continuing the Free Library and appeals were made in several quarters; however, improvements were made to the building and in 1895 two closets with flushing cisterns were installed – although the building was still lit by gaslight, as electricity was considered too expensive.
In 1940, at the start of the second world war, the Library building, for so long the cultural centre of Ventnor, was taken over by the County Seely Library, and it has remained part of the County Library service since then. In 1957 65,000 books were issued – an increase of 19% on the previous year, which the County Librarian put down to ‘a better supply of new books’ and ‘television losing some of its novelty’ (!). By 1961 about a third of the people living in Ventnor were borrowing books from the library, and nearly 76,000 were issued – and in 1977 the three millionth book was borrowed by a pupil of St Catherine’s School.
Throughout the years the Library building provided numerous classes and exhibitions and many people contributed in a variety of ways to its success. One person in particular, Librarian Mr Ian Snow, who retired in 1991 after 38 years as the librarian at Ventnor, is remembered for his contribution in setting up our valuable music collection of around 38,000 items.
Now, in the twenty-first century, the Library is still evolving, with eight open access computers being available and in constant use, while book borrowing is still high at nearly 48,000 for the year. Nearly a third of Ventorians are still active members of the Library, and in 2011 the town was was able to fight off the threat of closure by a County Council struggling with reduced finances (see this Guardian story). The Library goes from strength to strength, still a centre of life in the town, providing a home for concerts, talks, art and photography exhibitions, and many activities for children, as well as the packed library shelves.
Sincere thanks go to Fay Hewitt Brown for providing the source of all this information. For those interested in reading in more detail, A Tale of Two Buildings is published by the Ventnor and District Local History Society and available from them (and also in the Library, of course).