Bringing Books to the Public

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The building on the right, formerly government offices on what is today's Lebuh Downing, was one of the library's early homes in the 1800s. From The Wade Collection, reprinted from Penang Postcards Collections: 1899-1930s by Khoo Salma Nasution and Malcolm Wade.

The first library in Malaya was built in Penang, but its beginnings were uncertain.

It was 1806 and C. Smith Esquire had a problem in Penang. Someone had borrowed the second part of the second volume of his Encyclopædia Britannica’s supplement and it had long been missing.

While a situation like this may not pose much of a problem today, it was a big deal at the start of the 19th century. Books were scarce to start with, especially in a tiny British colonial settlement in the Straits of Malacca.” Malacca. Any book found in Penang had been personally carried across the sea by its owner or was a long-awaited order that had arrived off cargo ships. A missing book, therefore, especially one in a collection like Encyclopædia Britannica, was a sore loss and warranted a newspaper advertisement, which was exactly what Smith issued in The Government Gazette (a paper that was later renamed Prince of Wales Island Gazette) on May 31.

Smith’s extraordinary efforts may have resulted in this story having a happy ending, as historian Marcus Langdon tells us. “We’ve found out that later on this fellow left the island and his 20-volume set of Encyclopædia Britannica was sold off,” he says. “As we track back to Francis Light first stepping ashore in Penang and the very small number of Europeans who came with him, we see that people brought their materials and their books with them to the settlement.”

Reading sessions and private gatherings were organised where the settlers could come together to engage socially and share their sources of news and entertainment. “When examining Penang records of the British East India Company (EIC) and the contemporary newspapers from the early 1800s, it is plain to see that for the very small population of English-speaking residents, there was little to do socially,” Langdon adds. “There was very little entertainment so people had to entertain themselves. Reading and writing were the forefront of activity. Gatherings at each other’s homes and the odd attempt at forming a social club or amateur theatrical group seemed to be some of the few entertainments available.”

Governments, Charters and Wars

As the settlement grew, things changed. Langdon, whose two-decade study of his family history has brought him from Melbourne to Penang, notes two occurrences that contributed to the development of everyday life for the European colonists.

Gatherings at each other’s homes and the odd attempt at forming a social club or amateur theatrical group seemed to be some of the few entertainments available.


First was the establishment of a Presidency Government in Penang and, later, the renewing of the EIC charter by the British government. “Penang was elevated to the fourth Presidency of India in 1805. During the Napoleonic Wars, the British admiralty needed to defend the east coast of India in a far better way than they had previously, and they established Penang as a naval base. With that came a whole entourage of highlypaid civil servants,” he says.

Langdon, who participated in a Seberang Perai Story lecture on the history of Penang public libraries organised by the Penang Heritage Trust and Think City back in November, notes, however, that the relative population of Europeans was still small, thus limiting the entertainment avenues of the settlement. “In 1810 a census of the Penang area showed that there were around 25,000 people in Penang Island and Province Wellesley. Of that, there were only about 150 Europeans, maximum. They represented a very small portion of the population,” he says.

In the run up to the expiration of the East India Company Act 1793 (Charter Act) in 1813, speculation and uncertainty were rife, which stunted the infrastructure development of the settlement even further. “In the early years, there was always a bit of uncertainty around Penang because the settlement was costing too much money and not really earning anything.

Every 20 years the EIC had to apply to extend its charter, which was its right to trade to India and China as a monopoly. So,I guess one can only wonder how it would feel if you were sitting here in 1812 or 1813 and you didn’t really know whether the charter was going to be extended or what the future of the island would be. This held back the development of a lot of institutions and buildings in Penang,” Langdon says.

The Town Hall as first constructed, seen here c. 1900 when the library was still located in the premises. From The Wade Collection, reprinted from Penang Postcards Collections: 1899-1930s by Khoo Salma Nasution and Malcolm Wade.

The charter, nevertheless, was renewed for a further 20 years, which gave the EIC administration the security of knowing that ships trading through to China would continue calling at Penang. “To put the timing in context, one should appreciate that news of the end of the 1812-1815 war with America and the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo had only recently filtered through to Penang

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

Marcus Langdon.

“George Town was also recovering from the disastrous fires of 1814 and plans to construct St George’s Church were well under way. In 1816, public spirit came to the fore when Reverend Robert Sparke Hutchings proposed a charitable school for the children of poor parents from all cultural backgrounds. Subscriptions poured in from all quarters and Penang Free School was born. All in all, things were settling down and there was a bit more security and the idea of getting things going,” says Langdon, whose ancestor, George Porter, was the third headmaster of Penang Free School.

The Birth of a Library

It was against this positive backdrop that the idea of a public library came about.

“The enthusiasm for improvement spilled over to establish a public library. During the first meeting for the library on October 8, 1816, a list was tabled containing some 900 books donated by members of the public. The civil servants were being paid relatively well but those 900 books really came from probably about 10 to a dozen people from the European population.

“This gives you some idea of the collections people had and the feeling of excitement and drive to start this library,” Langdon says.

He adds that a set of the best globes and accompanying maps were ordered from London and donated by settlement governor William Petrie while Robert Smith, who built St George’s Church, gave one of his paintings to the newly mooted library. “The people behind the library were the main movers and shakers in the EIC administration in Penang.”

Although termed a “public” library, Langdon says that the new institution was rather a subscription library where members paid both subscription and monthly fees to use the facility. “You had to be a subscriber to borrow books, so in a way, it was a bit of a gentleman’s club. It was a way for everybody to donate their books to a central point where all the subscribers could go, be at peace and read,” he says. Initial subscription fees were set at $25 Spanish Dollars per person (raised to $50 after the first year) with a monthly fee of $4.

Three newspapers from Britain, The Morning Chronicle, The Times and Bell’s Weekly Messenger, were commissioned,along with one paper each from Calcutta, Madras and Bombay – the three Presidency Governments of India.

On January 1, 1817, on top of the gun carriage store of an EIC armament on the southern end of Light Street, Penang’s first library opened its doors.

Debt, Displacement and the Future

The library, open from 6am to 9pm daily, was well received. Within six short years, however, it was in debt. “Funding the ongoing requirements of its operations proved more of a challenge than perhaps at first anticipated. The EIC’s Court of Directors in London was mildly supportive and donated $800 while the Penang Government chipped in a further $500. But by 1822, the library was just over $1,000 in debt and membership was dropping off,” Langdon says.

Problems included getting members to pay their fees, the complacency of members returning borrowed books (the library collection was now 3,000 volumes strong) and orders of books being lost at sea. 

Karen Lai

C. Smith Esquire's newspaper advertisement in The Government Gazatte on May 31, 1806, requesting the return of one of his missing books.

“The amalgamation of the three settlements of Penang, Singapore and Malacca under the Penang presidency in August 1826 also made the permanent residency of some civil service members more tenuous as they could at any time be directed to take up a position at one of the other settlements. In June 1830 the Presidency Government in Penang was abolished, which was probably a disaster for the library because most of its main subscribers were its employees.

“It meant that the administration would go back to falling under the Bengal government with resident counsellors and so on. So, a lot of the civil servants went,” Langdon says. Membership fell from its peak of 41 in 1823 to just 19 in 1830 as some of the library’s best patrons were retrenched from public service.

Langdon says that the initial premises of the library was given rent-free until April 1829 when Governor Robert Fullerton announced that a $28 monthly rent was to be imposed. “The library moved out to an unknown address but was later granted two rooms in the Custom House building on today’s Lebuh Downing. With the looming demotion of the settlement to a residency subordinate to Bengal, it was of little consequence to the government to donate the use of these rooms, which would soon be depleted of staff. This last measure appears to have saved the library from collapsing under debt, but the question of how to increase the funds remained ever present,” Langdon says.

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

George Porter by Richard Read Jnr, 1836. Picture courtesy of Marcus Langdon

In one way or another, he goes on, the library did manage to limp along and survive the following decades. It remained at the Custom House building for the next half a century, after which the books spent a short stint at the Magistrate’s Court on Lebuh Light before the library moved into the newly constructed Town Hall in 1880.

At this time, Langdon says, a committee was appointed to manage the library’s affairs and the Straits Settlement government began supporting the institution with annual subsidies. “The initial subsidy was $1,500, which was gradually increased over the years. One of the stipulations in providing this subsidy was that a public reading room be established. This, then, was the beginning of a true public library, open to all,” Langdon concludes.

The tale, of course, does not end there. The country’s first library was relocated again, first to the Supreme Court Building on Lebuh Farquhar and then, much later, to Dewan Sri Pinang. It would be pillaged in World War II where its treasures would be sold for wrapping paper; but later it was revived and renamed the Penang State Library. From there, the library would grow to encompass dozens of libraries, both large and small, along with a 12-vehicle-strong mobile library service that currently plies the dusty rural roads seeking out those who pursue knowledge.





Andrea Filmer is a freelance journalist who has lived in the US and Australia but, for reasons unknown to herself, finds it impossible to call anywhere but Penang home.



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