History of the Town Library

PREFACE by Adam Hart-Davies

For the last ten years I have been presenting historical programmes on television, and writing books to go with them. The most recent have been about what the Victorians and Tudors and Stuarts did for us, but the earlier programmes were about long-dead scientists and inventors; we called them Local Heroes.

Our starting point in looking for local heroes in a particular place was always the local history or local studies library. There we could be fairly sure to find both the information and the expertise to extract it. I remember making a phone call to the local-studies librarian in Perth and asking whether he had any suitable candidates. He said, "Would you be interested in Mr Gilbert Malloch, who invented the combined walking stick, camera tripod, salmon gaff, and landing net?" Sure enough, Gilbert Malloch became a local hero.

© Saffron Walden Town Library Society, 2004 & 2015

I am always delighted to find a library that keeps old books. Often these can supply different information from modern ones, and presented in a different style. A simple example is my ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, published around 1875. It has 50 pages on Egyptian cotton, which I never want to read, but fascinating articles on perpetual motion, and both Marc and Isambard Brunel, couched in Victorian language and with a perspective that is quite different from today's.

Of all the small-town libraries I have visited, few can match the one at Saffron Walden. In search of information about Henry Winstanley, builder of the first Eddystone lighthouse, I dropped in, and was rapidly offered both the information and the knowledge of how to find it. Large institutional libraries have many more books but can rarely offer this detailed personal service. Long live the historic Town Library.

Adam Hart-Davis, 2004