As our libraries become more scarce and threatened, it's hard not to contrast this decline in provision with the appearance of numerous, often elaborate buildings in the Victorian period. West Norwood has a lovely example, with 'Free Public Library' across its facade. It is the work of architect Sidney Smith, who may be better known for Tate Britain but also built other Lambeth libraries. That's no coincidence: both libraries and gallery were commissioned by Sir Henry Tate.
Like his Scottish-American counterpart Andrew Carnegie, who also gave library buildings to the capital, Tate was a self-made millionaire. Starting as a grocer's apprentice, he went on to have his own shops before moving into sugar refining. His fortune allowed him to support a number of causes including educational establishments and hospitals, as well as to found libraries and the eponymous gallery. There was good reason for Tate to establish his libraries in South London: he lived in Streatham and is buried in West Norwood Cemetery.
One factor which helped Tate and other philanthropists was that the Libraries Act 1850 allowed local councils to finance public reading rooms. However, important restrictions on this power -particularly a cap on the amount councils could spend - made the involvement of benefactors invaluable. (The Act had been controversial, and at least one opponent had argued that more knowledge just made the working classes harder to manage.) Free libraries made books available to those who could afford neither to buy them nor to pay the borrowing fees at commercial lending libraries. They also provided a place to read them, ideally one more quiet and spacious than the overcrowded homes of many ordinary people.
The West Norwood building ceased to be a library in 1964 (replaced by a more modern, but less attractive, one nearby). However, it is protected by Grade II listing and after a period of disuse is now a council venue and activity centre.