Celebrating the origins of public libraries in Coventry

This coming Saturday, February 4th, libraries all over the UK will celebrate the importance of libraries on National Libraries Day.

Many events have been organised in all different types of libraries across the country to support and raise the profile of libraries. Locally Coventry Libraries have organised several events.

Books and libraries have always been an important part of life in Coventry. Whilst there is evidence of earlier libraries the first public library in the city was created in the Old Grammar School in 1602. The library was open to both pupils and members of the public.

Gulson Library from Broadgate, 1905

Gulson Library from Broadgate, 1905

In 1791 the Coventry Library Society was established. The society met originally in a property near the Castle Inn, Broadgate and later at 29 Hertford Street. During this period there were other private, circulating libraries in the city and possibly a Ladies’ Book Society.

The Coventry Library Society flourished during the first half of the 1800s but went into decline during the 1860s, possibly due to the wider economic conditions in the city at the time (sound familiar?). It was decided the society could not continue so they offered their Hertford Street premises and collection of 17000 volumes to the corporation to a public library. The library was officially opened by the mayor John Gulson on 31st August 1868.

The Hertford Street premises soon became unsuitable and a new library, the Free Library was built on the site of the disused Coventy Gaol adjacent to County Hall. The library, opened on Wednesday 8th October, 1873, was funded by John Gulson, Samuel Carter, public subscription and the Committee of the Coventry and Midland Fine Art and Industrial Exhibition.

Just a year later another literary society, the Coventry Book Club, was formed in 1874. The club greatly supported the Free Library. They purchased books for their own use and then passed them on to the public library for a nominal fee.

Interior of Gulson Reference Library

Interior of Gulson Reference Library

By 1889 the number of volumes held by the public library had risen to 34,000 meaning yet again more space was needed. A new wing was built and opened in 1889 to house the reference library. The new wing was entirely funded by John Gulson and consequently the library became known as the Gulson Library.

The Gulson Library was badly damaged during the blitz of November 14 1940. However by keeping calm and carrying on a temporary library service was set up at the Methodist Central Hall in January 1942.

Ten years later the Central lending and reference libraries were moved back into part of the Gulson Library which had survived the blitz and had been renovated.

A new Central Library opened in Bayley Lane in 1967 complete with a new-fangled Gramophone Library! This remained the Central Library until the library moved to its present location at the former Locarno/Tiffany’s building in 1986.

Rayanne, Acting Librarian
Coventry History Centre


Posted on 03/02/2012, in History Centre and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Worked in the old central library in 1982/3. Happy memories, you could feel the history surrounding you. I used to try to avoid shelving the 800s up the stone spiral staircase to the balcony, I was convinced it was going to fall down while I was up there.

  2. The stone spiral staircase sounds a little precarious – thank you for sharing your memories with us!

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