Napoleon III and public libraries

From Lara Moore’s Restoring Order: The Ecole des Chartes and the Organization of Archives and Libraries in France, 1820-1870 (pages 208-209):

It … appears that the late Empire had strong political misgivings about the extension of libraries to the “popular” classes. In April 1864, Interior Minister Paul Boudet dispatched a circular marked “confidential” to department prefects. The circular recalled that in the last two years, private associations like the Société Franklin had “instituted in various places in the Empire popular libraries, whose object is to promote the reading of books particularly destined for the working class.” Boudet then added:

The government’s intention is not to thwart the development of an undertaking that seems to have an honorable goal, but its duty is to see to it that as they multiply, popular libraries do not encourage abuses which would change the primary purpose of these establishments and transform them into hotbeds of propaganda and political intrigue.

In order to prevent popular libraries from becoming “revolutionary schools” or “so many centers of propaganda,” prefects were to maintain careful surveillance of these new collections, particularly monitoring their catalogues for books containing “dangerous or subversive theories.” Such language suggests that while Napoléon III’s ministers were willing to take the limited step of establishing school libraries, they worried about the political consequences of developing large-scale collections for “popular” audiences. If opened to the grand public, public libraries might promote “revolutionary”” thinking, and while the late Empire was ready to make certain overtures to the political opposition, it was not willing to risk another French revolution.

One comment on “Napoleon III and public libraries

Comments are closed.