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The Beginnings of the Garrison Library

Dr. Jennifer Ballantine

Dr. Jennifer Ballantine

Established as a Private Subscription Library in 1793, the Gibraltar Garrison Library must have seemed at the time as a very peculiar institution, especially when this takes place so soon after the Great Siege (1779-1783).

The reality is that the Great Siege was the catalyst for the Library. Founded by Captain, later to become Colonel, Drinkwater, the idea for a Garrison Library stems from Drinkwater’s experience during the Great Siege, at which point he ‘lamented the want of a public library in Gibraltar’, especially as under siege conditions little by way of food and supplies, let alone newspapers and reading material, reached Gibraltar.

Garrison Library Gibraltar

Still, why were books so important to Drinkwater?

It is certainly the case that during wars, and indeed under siege conditions, that many hours, days and weeks are spent waiting for action, for the next volley of cannon fire to commence.

These ‘quiet’ periods can be very hard on soldiers, and Drinkwater recognised how devastating these periods could be on soldier moral and their mental health. We know much more now about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) but little enough in the 18th century.

Drinkwater however did understand that distractions were needed to keep the minds of soldiers occupied and away from thoughts of desertion and suicide.

Garrison Library Gibraltar

It takes ten years before the Garrison Library becomes a reality in 1793 and when it does, it is only open to a select set of subscribers, officers of the Garrison, who pay a subscription every month towards the upkeep of the Library and its collections.

Nevertheless, private subscription libraries were being set-up in the UK, created by and for communities of subscribers who embarked upon establishing permanent collections of books for their members use.

So the question begs as to why Drinkwater set up a private library for officers and not a public one, which would have provided wider access across all sectors of Gibraltar.

It may be difficult to know exactly why, but placing this in historical context may tell us something about the Garrison Library as an 18th century institution. Around this time there were hardly any public libraries in the UK, and none in Gibraltar.

Garrison Library Gibraltar

This was seen as a means by which groups, mostly comprised of wealthy men, including a rising mercantile, middle class, could congregate in institutions they themselves had forged to network with likeminded individuals and indeed, continue in their education if not cultivation. The Garrison Library as it turns out was not that dissimilar in its ethos.

The first reading rooms of the Garrison Library were opened for the officers of the Garrison at premises opposite The Convent, the Governor’s residence, with an initial catalogue of around 460 volumes. Books continued to be purchased and by 1799 it became necessary to consider a move to larger premises.

Here begins a second phase in the Library’s history, one that secured an important legacy for the Library in Gibraltar.

Read next month’s edition for the next instalment of the Library’s history.

What do you think?