Bringing Books to the Public

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

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The building on the right, formerly government offices on what is today's Downing Street, 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

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. Any book found in Penang had been personally carried across the sea by their owners 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.”

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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.

Read more at Penang Monthly

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